Review: Sandwiches are great, too bad they fund a cult
Last Sunday, I was working in the lobby of Spencer Residence Hall when my friends Victor and Bhargavi stumbled upon me.
After catching up on our breaks, Victor threw out a pitch — what if we went to the Yellow Deli, a restaurant he absolutely loved, tomorrow?
There were only two catches: it was over two hours away, and owned and operated by a cult.
My relationship with Victor and Bhargavi is a bit like what I imagine friendship must have been like for my parents in the pre-cell phone era. I usually just run into them in the residence hall lobby and talk for a few hours, or other times they will knock on my door and give me pitches — “Hey, do you want to go go-karting [or play poker, or eat burritos], right now?”
But this was their strangest idea yet. For one, the Yellow Deli is in Hiddenite, over two hours west. It is also one of several restaurants around the world owned and operated by the Twelve Tribes communities, a new religious movement which emerged in the 1970s and holds all property in common.
According to a Denver Postinvestigation,the group teaches that Black people should be subservient to white people, homosexuality is a sin worthy of death and wives must submit to their husbands. The group claims to be reliving the common life of the early Church described in the book of Acts and fund themselves by operating businesses like the Yellow Deli with unpaid labor from their members.
They also have recruited some members at Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan concerts.
Reading this, I began to feel queasy about the ethical implications of the whole operation. But by that point, I was already in, and so were our friends Paul and Rebekah.
It seemed like the type of story your dad would have; of how as a dumb sophomore he and his friends drove across the state a few days before classes started to get legendary sandwiches from a cult. So I was in.
We departed at 7:30 p.m. on Monday. That was okay, though, because, for some reason, the Yellow Deli is open 24 hours a day except on the sabbath day of Saturday. We drove for two hours before getting off I-40 in Statesville, and winded down rural roads that were too dark to see.
“We have one mile left before we run out of gas,” Victor announced with 10 miles to go.
Thankfully, we made it to Hiddenite, a gemstone mining town in Alexander County, population 507. The restaurant towered like a pagoda over the rest of the town.
The inside felt like a hippie Cracker Barrel. Its three floors were terraced and finished with dark wood, the booths were laid out in funky patterns, a fireplace burned in the corner and the health and sanitation inspection got an “A” rating of 100 percent. The bathrooms were all gender neutral, saying “Whoever you are” on them. I was happy to find that the vegetarian options are reasonable, and the menu says “Please tell us if you have food allergies, we love you!!”
The only things that would have keyed me into its owner-operators were the King James Bible in the lobby, the bar that didn't serve alcohol and the Twelve Tribes pamphlets offered around the restaurant (titles including “The Three Eternal Destinies of Man” and “Are You Ready For What’s Coming?”)
I felt that since I’d come all this way, I had to order two of their legendary sandwiches, a veggie burger and a “yellow submarine” vegetable sandwich.
I expressed my reservations about our purchases funding the group, but Rebekah said “Fuck it we ball” (I later donated the amount of my check to Partners in Health and would encourage you to do the same if you go.)
The food was good, but not life changing. It wasn't worth four hours of driving without the broader cultural intrigue and experience, but I enjoyed it.
The yellow submarine was just lettuce, tomato, pepper, onions and sprouts in between bread, but the sauce, mysteriously called the “spread of the week,” gave it a lovely finish. The veggie burger was notably better than the vegetarian food I have encountered elsewhere in the rural South and the coleslaw was not overpowered by mayonnaise.
It all seemed so…nice.
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Flipping through the pamphlets that emphasized common ownership and life in community, I wondered if that was the way to go. All the workers seemed nearly stress free. My society of hyper-individualism and excessive careerism sure doesn't resemble how the apostles might have lived.
Maybe, I wondered, the real weirdos were the fast-paced, isolated people back in Chapel Hill.
“We should go back before it gets too late,” Rebekah suggested, breaking the spell as I had no more time to get drawn in.
As we went back east on I-40, I read through the pamphlets.
Though they present an idealized hippie aesthetic, what they won’t tell you is that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in their communes “the internet is highly restricted, and secular music, books and other ‘worldly’ influences are verboten.” The pamphlets show people dancing in circles and present a gentler view of hell than your average pit preacher, but the SPLC notes that they teach that slavery was “a marvelous opportunity” for Black people.
Around 1:15 a.m., we made it back to Spencer. And so we returned, still a car full of normal, private property-holding, LGBTQ+-affirming, slavery-condemning Presbyterians, agnostics, Catholics and Mormons.
Did we avoid joining the cult? Yes. But, can we ever get a sandwich that good without another 135-mile odyssey to Hiddenite? Also yes.
It would be five stars on taste alone, but one has to be removed for the guilt of my conscience after paying the bill.