Posted on June 25th, 2012
I sipped my banana milk and stared up at the mural on the wall. Underneath a heading reading, “Is this progress?” was a painted chart showing the incremental evolution of ape to human, ending with a soldier armed with an AK-47. A monkey (bearing a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman) looked on, extending his arms in animated gesture. Above him a speech bubble read, “Don’t blame me!”
I elbowed Mr. Max and pointed to it. “Pretty funny.”
It was eight days into our vacation and we had finally built up the courage to have breakfast at the Yellow Deli. Locals had told us that the Deli (which is really more of a cafe) was owned, operated, and staffed by members of the Twelve Tribes, a controversial religious sect that had a community nearby. I was apprehensive, but the promise of fresh, homemade bread (a rarity in rural New York) won us over.
As we pondered the menu, I nudged Mr. Max to admire the rest of the interior, which was covered, floor to ceiling, with carved wood decorations, ironwork and murals, all made by tribe members. Bearded (and, in the case of the women, long-haired and long-skirted) staff made their rounds from table to table, using a rope-based dumbwaiter system to ferry trays of food between the two floors. The hammered dulcimer music coming through the restaurant’s sound system only served to enhance the impression that we had wandered into a tavern in The Legend of Zelda.
Our waiter was polite and businesslike, dissipating any lingering fears that our breakfast would come with a side of hard-sell cult recruitment. At some point a gaggle of tourists came in and sat at the counter, chatting inquisitively with a waitress about the group’s religious beliefs. The waitress explained breezily that members of the Twelve Tribes were Christians who lived and worked collectively, and that the group originated in Europe, living on communal farms and homesteads in the countryside.
We had ambitiously over-ordered, and the table filled with plates of wholesome, homestyle food: a gooey egg and cheese sandwich, a yogurt parfait with juicy berries, something called a honey bun (a hot buttered whole wheat roll with honey, walnuts, & wheat germ), and moist, cakey muffins. Everything tasted creamy and pure — like whole milk and honey prepared by a kitchen maid from a Vermeer painting. I cut off a piece of my perfect raspberry muffin and perched it on the edge of Mr. Max’s plate, eager to share the experience. “This is damn good,” I whispered once the waiter strayed out of earshot.
My thoughts drifted to the fast-approaching end of our rural vacation, and our eventual return to offices, traffic, bills, and computer screens. As the waitress continued to describe a life spent among farms and fields, I found myself acknowledging that, regardless of how you feel about off-label religions, the lifestyle has distinct appeal.
Sated and sleepy, we prepared to make our exit. A young male tribe member in a green plaid shirt, perhaps taking a cue from my untrimmed hair and Mr. Max’s vacation beard, smiled warmly at us as we walked by.
The morning breeze hit my face like a splash of cool water. Though we shared some key characteristics (grooming habits, a feeling of societal isolation), the tribe would not be gaining two new members. We were visitors, not followers.
But that soft, sweet, earthy bread — that, I can believe in.