February 13, 2023

LEVIN | The Yellow Deli: A Response to The Sun’s Dining Department

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I was thumbing through The Cornell Daily Sun’s print edition the other week and landed on The Yellow Deli: A Cornell Sun Review. Never have I been so startled by a food review. Many Cornellians who oppose bigotry know by now to avoid the Yellow Deli, a local eatery owned and operated by the Twelve Tribes — an alleged white supremacist religious cult — but apparently one food critic at our newspaper does not. To him, The Yellow Deli serves such remarkable fare that he had to go there twice and pen two columns about the restaurant (the second of which is the subject of this op-ed). 

One baffling line from the food review reads as follows: “Regardless of what the Twelve Tribes stand for, they know how to make food…” Another quote irks me just as much: “Allegations, history and politics aside, the purpose of my visit to the Yellow Deli was to give their food a sincere, open-minded review.” A business cannot be reviewed in isolation of its ethical principles, and that is why this upbeat piece leaves a sour taste in my mouth. 

For those unfamiliar, I will recount the Yellow Deli’s record, which is mentioned but only briefly in the food review. Foremost, the business is owned by the Twelve Tribes, an entity labeled as a racist cult by reputable watchdogs. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Twelve Tribes indoctrinates its followers with the horrid belief that slavery was “a marvelous opportunity” for Black people, and the cult’s official position on homosexuality is that gay people deserve death. The Twelve Tribes also promotes anti-semitic tropes, claiming that Jews are to blame for the death of Christ and “are still cursed for [it].” To stay in business, the cult downplays its bigotry to the uninitiated and, when asked, unconvincingly denies that it is a cult. 

Furthermore, the cult has a longstanding history of victimizing children and violating workers’ rights. Allegedly, as a condition of membership, followers surrender their belongings to the cult and work on communes or in restaurants that the Twelve Tribes own, including the Yellow Deli. As for child abuse, a former member accused cult followers of whipping a young child until bruised, and official Twelve Tribes documents encourage parents within the cult to physically punish their children. The cult has also been known to employ child labor. In fact, the Yellow Deli is a rebrand of the Maté Factor, a yerba maté café shut down after authorities uncovered extensive child labor law violations. But at least, as the writer of this food review notes, the Yellow Deli’s yerba maté is to die for: “The tart lime drink had an unmissable yerba mate flair that lingered on my taste buds.” Hopefully, there were no children in the kitchen brewing that yerba maté, but I guess when one sets “[a]llegations, history and politics aside…”, that would have been no problem anyway. 

I have never been to nor do I intend to visit the Yellow Deli, so I will take for granted the food critic’s observations: The food is cheaper than the competition (possibly because of unscrupulous business practices), the service seems amiable (until you inquire about the cult’s politics), the business is well-furnished and so on. But none of that matters when the restaurant itself is a façade to market a contrived image of a repressive cult. The Dining Department should retract its favorable review of the Yellow Deli’s menu and do better going forward to incorporate a basic degree of social awareness into its articles. A dining experience is more than simply the ingredients served to a table but also how a person feels after their meal. How anyone can feel good about eating at the Yellow Deli and supporting its hateful cause with their money is beyond me. 

Gabriel Levin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.