This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Katoomba is a strange place. Probably the best description I've heard is that it has "a strong Twin Peaks vibe." It's a small town in New South Wales, Australia surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Mountains, seemingly populated by busloads of camera-clutching tourists and backpackers with white boy dreads. It's the kind of place where the local store sells jackets like like:
But Katoomba is also home to a cult. Well, at least that's what an American tourist tells us. He describes the group as "Amish Jewish" and says they started in the US back in the 70s. For the life of him though he can't remember what they are called.
So we ask a tour guide at the local information center whether this so-called cult has a name. "Which one?" he replies, explaining the Blue Mountains are filled with cults. There's the Exclusive Brethren, who build windowless churches; and an alleged sect of nuns who've isolated themselves from the outside world.
"I think you're talking about the Twelve Tribes though," he says. He tells us to look out for the "hipsters"—beards, flannel shirts, artisanal food. "They run a cafe in the town called the Yellow Deli. Great food, terrible service," he adds, chuckling at his hipster joke as he walks away.
Scrolling through the Yellow Deli's Google reviews, this seems to be the general consensus. Everyone clearly loved the "delicious home cooked meals" and the interior, which has a "Middle Earth feel to it," a "Hobbit house IRL" if you will. But of the more than 100 reviews, there's only one mentions that it's run by the Twelve Tribes.
"We left before we received our food when we realized this cafe is owned by a group that is part of the Twelve Tribes cult," it reads. "They practice child labor, beating their children with rods, splitting up families, sheltering members from the outside world, and antisemitism. I would strongly urge you to give your money to one of the many other fine cafes in Katoomba, where your money will not fund a cult."
How could so many people just ignore that this cafe was being run by a really controversial religious sect? Could the food really be that good? We decided we had to check it out ourselves.
The Yellow Deli is on Katoomba's main street. We arrive around noon and the place is buzzing. Inside, women deliver plates of food and tea from the pass to tables—all of them wearing harem pants with long braids trailing down their backs. The men wear their hair long too. The tour guide was kind of right: thick beards, lots of flannel.
A man approaches with a broad smile and sits us in a booth by the door. His name is Justin, and he's the cafe manager. The first surprise is how upfront Justin is about the Twelve Tribes. We'd thought it'd be very smoke and mirrors but he floods us with information before we've even ordered.
Handing us samples of their homemade "green drink," Justin tells us there are around 100 people in the community, all living together. They have a farm in Picton, about a hour and 45 minutes south-east of Katoomba. Everybody works, some in the cafe, some at the farm, others teaching the children who are all homeschooled. Members of the Twelve Tribes don't vote, they don't drink or smoke, and the don't watch TV. "We do have a computer," Justin tells us. Some people use it a lot, he admits.
But the internet is a pretty fraught place for the Twelve Tribes. It abounds with accounts from scarred escapees, children who grew up at the mercy of the group's strict doctrine—a strange mix of Christian fundamentalism and 70s counterculture.
A few years ago, former members Mark and Rosemary Ilich did a tell all with the Sydney Morning Herald about their time living in the Blue Mountains community. When they joined the Twelve Tribes, the couple handed over all of their worldly possessions to the group. They also handed over the discipline of their children, who Mark and Rosemary allege were routinely hit with a wooden rod by any adult in the community if they misbehaved.
"It's called 'the rod and reproof,'" Mark told the paper. "The kids are not meant to cry. They're meant to 'receive' their discipline quietly. Then you tell them why you hit them and they say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' It becomes a ritual."
His face souring only momentarily, Justin tells us everybody has a blog today and people can say anything they want on the internet. Then he takes our order.
We go with the Garden Burger on a homemade Kaiser roll and a Reuben, which has received a lot of love in Google reviews. While we're waiting Justin suggests a pot of yerba mate, a tea that's popular throughout Central and South America. "It helps your focus," he says, explaining the group is big on things that help center your mind.
This mix of religious piety and what can't really escape the definition of "clean eating" that defines the Twelve Tribes is curious, but it actually dates back to the group's founding in 1972. What's now more than 3,000 members around the world can be traced to a single bible study group that was started by former high school teacher Gene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Spriggs—who goes by a Hebrew name now, as all Tribe members do—is known Yoneq. He is a divisive figure. Writing for Pacific Standard, Julia Scheeres reported that in the late 1970s Spriggs "began to preach that blacks were destined to be slaves, homosexuals "deserved the death penalty," and women — who weren't allowed to use birth control — had to atone for Eve's original sin by giving birth without painkillers."
The group's name reflects the belief that they are recreating the 12 ancient tribes of Israel. Its goal, Scheeres writes, is to "produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ's second coming."
But the mate tea is great.
Despite the reviews of slow service, our food arrives quickly, in those wicker baskets that were very on-trend in 2013. By now the Yellow Deli is heaving with people, regulars chatting with the staff, busy locals taking lunch to go. The burger comes with a cup of pumpkin soup, and the Reuben with a side of pickles.
James says: After Justin sufficiently tore my lifestyle decisions apart (read: selfies, drinking, working for a bank), I felt an act of defiance was the only gesture that could possibly tip the scales—which were no doubt hand carved from responsibly sourced wood—back in my favor. It felt good to order a meaty Reuben from our definitely vegan waiter.
It tasted good to eat too: Gentle heat from American mustard, slices of tender beef, and sweet, sweet sauerkraut. Around 20 minutes after eating though I suddenly became so tired I convinced myself I had been poisoned or fed loads of sleepers. But no, I was just full*
*and overwhelmed, having been invited to visit "the community" for an evening of acoustic guitars and dancing.
Maddison says: Way too often vegan burgers taste like wet packing pellets. Burger chefs, it seems, somehow missed the millions of articles that are like, "Vegan Burgers Don't Need to Taste Like Shit." But this burger was a revelation.I think the patty was smoked tofu, which gave it this amazing barbecue flavor. The zingy mayonnaise cut right through the smokiness. God, it was good.
The pumpkin soup was a different story. It was bland, what I imagine flannel might taste like. It's unfortunate the Tribes apparently don't allow chilli. This soup could've used the kick.
James says: For dessert, I had a vegan cookie which was really, honestly, very delicious. It was the sort of thing you've tried to make at home once before, which IRL was hard, disappointing, and charred. Only this looked like the stock image from the Food Network site and tasted like it had been made by a mysterious community who didn't appreciate my references to Matt Preston or MasterChef.
Maddison says: This vegan carob cookie was legitimately good enough to make me question whether I would give up all of my possessions to live a life on the land. Ultimately, I decided not to. But about halfway through I was tempted.
Contented and very full, we left the Yellow Deli unconverted. It's not that our waiter Justin wasn't lovely, he was, and the picture he painted of life in the Twelve Tribes was pretty idyllic. But here's the thing… It sounded like so much fucking work. Getting up early, circle dancing, sowing crops, making everything from scratch, picking out a different flannel shirt every day.
The question of whether the Twelve Tribes was a cult or just a business-savvy group of Christian hippies didn't really matter. Neither of us were built for this life of austerity. Vegan cookies are great but so is TV, taking selfies, drinking too much. Maybe there is a cult out there for us, maybe those cloistered nuns hidden away somewhere in the Blue Mountains would be a little more chill. If only we could find them.