The Yellow Deli People – Great Deli, Controversial Religious Practices

After Bonnaroo, we were tired, footsore, and hungry. Chugging around in Chattanooga, Tennessee, late afternoon, right after we checked out Ruby Falls, we just wanted something relatively healthy to eat. I was sick of our makeshift peanut butter on dry rolls and banana chips, supplemented with my one or two Bonnaroo food stand foods I allowed myself each day. I just wanted something fresh, tasty, organic, if possible, and unaffiliated with any cult. Is that too much to ask?

“Go by the university, where the yuppies and foodies are,” offered my companion. Signs pointed uphill. I made a right and a left and another few rights and then an attractive building flashed by and a sign, The Yellow Deli. It seemed like the kind of place you’d find near a university, with branded organic foods and teas on the shelves, track lighting, varnished wooden tables, a hand-drawn menu covered in soy products. We walked upstairs to the mezzanine and were seated at a table near a tastefully lit lounge section with couches, lamps and a fireplace. I joked with Elizabeth about some spelling mistakes on the menu, trying to impress her with my overly pedantic sense of humor, but the waitress overheard me say “‘jalapeño’ is j-a-l-a, not j-a-l-e”.

“Oh, sorry” she laughed nervously. “There might be some typos in there.” I felt guilty about returning their politeness with criticism. Elizabeth said good-naturedly “You can ignore him, he’s an editor.” Everyone laughed politely. I felt like some pretentious New York asshole, sensitive to things like grammar but I couldn’t help but mutter “you can’t make ‘typos’ in something handwritten” to Elizabeth, who rolled her eyes. I turned my eyes to the pamphlet they pushed on me as I walked in the door, unnoticed till now. It was some editorial missive on the hippie, organic lifestyle, a similar agenda as many food coops and organic cafes.

We had chili and a salad, and while we ate we studied the elaborate wall mural. There was a kind of Christ figure or an Elijah, some prophet, leading a group of people. Written over the mural was the story and philosophical declaration of the flower children of the ’60s, and about their disillusionment with our vain earthly pursuit of peace. There was some more stuff about Timothy Leary, which is to be expected, but there was a distinctly Christian-ish bent. We began to feel slightly disquieted; usually the organic movement and the flower children are maligned by the religious as fanciful hippies, dedicated liberals who embrace lives of promiscuity. This oil/water mixture shouldn’t be allowed, I thought. And what’s this? Scripture on the check…I started reading the pamphlet they gave us upon walking in, skipping past the friendly, familiar hippy declarations at the beginning and getting to the part about some version of Christ and some leader we all should follow. Still, it was decent food and it’s tough to feel alarmed by those who feed you. To me, people take on a definite maternal quality as soon as they hand me a plate, which is as a proffered breast to my trusting, infantile eyes. And they were all so nice.

Each step on the varnished staircase was inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel, written in transliterated Hebrew or Aramaic or something. “Maybe this is some kind of Jewish place,” I conjectured aloud to Elizabeth. A woman at the counter smiled.

Back in the car we did our research. It turns out The Yellow Deli People, or The Twelve Tribes, is a fundamentalist religious group with arcane practices and rigid, draconian rules—and a great deli. They also proselytize and compel each of their converts to give up their possessions to the community, including their children, who are raised communally and according to their strict religious practices. In other words, a cult!

“Oh my god we ate at a cult!” screamed Elizabeth, and we made the usual jokes about suicide kool-aid and sexual initiation rites, tantalizing to our overactive, alarmist imaginations.  She read an article about a former Yellow Deli member who escaped, and we loved the creepiness and the chills down our spines. You might too? For a good time, eat at the Yellow Deli in Chattanooga! The food is good, don’t drink the kool-aid, skip the pamphlets, enjoy the feeling of being stared at.

By: Ben Britz

Photos by: Ben Britz and Elizabeth Seward

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