Keeping it Spicy
Mary Scherpe tells the story of the Feminist Food Club
Mary Scherpe moved to Berlin in 2003 and has been a keen observer of how the city has evolved ever since – first as a university student, then as the founder of Stil In Berlin, a blog that covers Berlin’s style, shopping, art, and food scene. After spending years in and around the food sphere, she co-founded the Feminist Food Club (FFC) with Ruth Bartlett, as an antidote to the male-dominated world of gastronomy.
The mission of the FFC is to “provide a safe space for trans and cis women, as well as non-binary people, of the food world.” The club offers mentoring sessions, talks, meetings, and provides online resources like reading lists and directories of trans- and cis-owned food businesses in Berlin. Last March, COVID-19 brought the FFC’s activities to a grinding halt, and had a similarly devastating effect on most of its members and volunteers. One year later, Mary gives us her take on the role of women in Berlin’s food scene and discusses what might happen next.
We want to go beyond the question of whether or not something tastes good.
You’ve been in Berlin for a while. What brought you here?
I came to Berlin in the mid/late winter of 2003, so I’ve been here for 18 years. I grew up in a village with 400-500 people in northern Saxony. When I finished school, Berlin really wasn’t on the table because it was just too much of a move from a small town to a big city, so I started studying in Karlsruhe. It’s the polar opposite from where I came from – really rich, very bourgeois and everything.
After two years or so, I got really bored of the city. I had a professor from Humboldt University in Berlin who was a guest professor for a year. I had a very small class with him and got to know him, so he wrote me a recommendation and that’s how I got to Berlin. For at least a year, I was completely overwhelmed by the city because it was just too big and I didn’t know how to navigate it. Berlin is not a very welcoming city – it lets you know very fast that it won’t wait for you, that no one will wait for you here.
The FFC was founded as “an action-driven group that provides a safer space for trans and cis women, as well as non-binary people of the food world.” Has that mission evolved over time?
The mission is not as old as the FFC, which had already been around for two years before we created it. When we started, it was really just, “Let’s just gather some people and see if there’s even a need for this.” I was interested in feminism for a long time before I founded the FFC, but my interest in feminism and politics and my interest in food were always kind of separated.
I had a conversation with an intern at Stil in Berlin back then. She told me about her brother, a reporter, who was able to cultivate a bunch of contacts and opportunities because of these guys he met in this basketball group. She felt like she had less opportunity and didn’t know how to handle this disadvantage. I told her, “You can do this for yourself. You can gather some of your uni friends, start talking about business, and gather some strength within your own group. As a young woman you don’t have access to this basketball group, but you can make your own.” I remember thinking that I should have done the same thing while I was in university, but that time had passed. A couple of weeks later, I thought, “Wait, this is stupid. You can still make your own group and see where it goes.” I think it gathered a lot of attention because of my Stil in Berlin background and how we approached it under the name ‘Feminist Food Club’ and not something like ‘Mary’s Hangout Group’.
We started in January 2017, which was before #MeToo. Even that first summer we had requests from clothing brands who wanted us in their advertisements where they wanted to portray cool, strong women. Unpaid. But back then, people were like, “Why wouldn’t you want the exposure?” We actually didn’t want it. We didn’t feel like we were a proper club yet. We hadn’t created any structures or guidelines, so we had to work on that, and that is also how the mission statement came about. It was very important to me from the beginning that it wasn’t called the ‘Women’s Food Club’. I wanted to have the political dimension of ‘feminist’ in the title, and I also didn’t want to limit it to a binary gender perception.
The goal is still to ignite conversations, but also to provide resources and information in a casual way. We’re not a group that focuses on business networking. We realised early on that this type of networking happens naturally, without us needing to facilitate it. We have a lot of people who help each other in the group – people have found jobs, business partners, locations to rent, consultants – without us ever making a huge deal about it. Having more female owners is going to change something, but in the end we’re focused on structural changes.
What changes and developments have you seen happening in the food scene in Berlin during the last few years?
For many years, Berlin has provided an environment where it was comparatively easier to start a food business. Well, let me rephrase: it was perceived as easier, mostly because of the money, the excitement of the audience, and the lack of competition. It wasn’t easier in terms of restrictions or administrative obstacles.
That coincided with a rise in interest in gastronomy and food, so a lot of people who hadn’t worked in the field previously started getting into it. However, many trans and cis women and non-binary people who began working in restaurants realised that Germany is very hirarchy-based. Often, if you don’t have the proper Ausbildung or title, you’re not going to get anywhere. Plus, you run into a lot of sexism and racism.
That situation pushed a lot of them to start their own businesses and we, as eaters in this city, have profited tremendously from that. A lot of the very progressive and delicious businesses that we have today are made by those people, and they’re mostly trans and cis women of color.
Many are making food from their heart, and the majority of it is interesting and high-quality. But how do you talk about it, position it, and how do you put yourself ahead of others in the Berlin food scene who are taking a different approach – like those offering 130€ grocery boxes or 35€ jars of jam?
There are a lot of conversations about food that we’re not having. Food is so political. A lot of people are aware of that but they still pretend it’s not – as if it doesn’t matter how workers’ conditions are, as if it doesn’t matter how much employees are paid, as if it doesn’t matter that only a few people can enjoy a 250€ tasting menu.
Then there’s the discussion about sustainability, which is very popular, but often so limited in who’s included and who isn’t. For example, the whole focus on local food sounds simple, but when you get into it, who defines what ‘local’ is? And doesn’t that lead to very problematic ideas of what local, regional, or traditional even means? So my goal with the FFC is to infiltrate all of this – to have those conversations. We want to go beyond the question of whether or not something tastes good. That’s why the discourse, not business networking, is at the forefront of our mission.
It’s interesting that you bring up the business side, because when COVID-19 hit, you created the Corona Crisis Talks. Some of those featured, like Lauren Lee (Fräulein Kimchi) and Sarah Durante (Humble Pie), talked about how they pivoted their businesses basically overnight. How did the Corona Crisis Talks idea evolve?
There was just a different type of energy, a different pressure back in March when the lockdown started. We were entering this new world order that no one had ever known before. There were so many questions in the FFC Facebook group, and there was so much confusion. But at the same time, there was so much desire to do something – so much creativity and such a big need for new ideas. Back then, we thought a month of lockdown would crash all the businesses. A year later, it’s not like everyone’s doing fine but the big apocalypse hasn’t happened – yet.
It was also clear to us that we would not be able to have in-person meetings for the foreseeable future, so doing something online was the next logical thing. Then I realised that I could take this as an opportunity to just talk to people I really wanted to talk to.
In the past year, a lot of people have developed or worked on their own relationship with food and learned a lot about how food is gathered and prepared.
Your Corona Crisis Talks turned into an extensive series – you did at least a dozen or two talks between March and May 2020.
All in all, it was around 30 talks or something. It was also the height of the confusion and everyone was just trying to get as much information as possible. Most people in locked-down places didn’t have much to do, so it was easy to get them to do an Insta Live. Last month I did a miniseries called Food and Stuff, which I want to explore further. I shifted it to Stil in Berlin to reach a bigger audience, but it’s definitely a test run for a FFC symposium kind of thing.
There’s a lot of crossover between the FFC and Stil in Berlin. Are you hoping to merge them eventually?They’re completely different organizational structures. Stil in Berlin is my brand, my business. The FFC is not a profit-oriented business. Even though we have talked through possibilities of making it into more of a business, or maybe turning it into a Verein or paid membership model, none of those ideas really fit what I think the FFC wants or should be. However, for a long time it’s been resting mostly on my shoulders, and that’s not a very sustainable way of going about things. In 2019 we had established a small organisational team that we wanted to extend, but the pandemic cut that short.
What sort of impact are you hoping to have in 2021?
I hope we will still exist at the end of 2021. That’s basically it. Maintaining a structure that has been built on a sense of community without having in-person meetings is tough. We need to be careful about how we spend our energy. Our organisational team is tiny (and at the moment, shrinking), so we need to consider where we invest our resources. We rely on voluntary work, which means I don’t want to spend it on weeks of organisational efforts for an in-person event that very few people show up to because they understandably don’t feel safe in a group yet. I’d rather focus on maintaining.
What do you think the future of the food scene is in Berlin – is corona going to have an equalising effect or is it going to disrupt what was already in motion?
I’m not great at making plans or predictions. I have a ton of ideas, but I’d rather actually try things than spend years planning. There certainly are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of good things can happen.
In the past year, a lot of people have developed or worked on their own relationship with food and learned a lot about how food is gathered and prepared. I personally have learned a lot about what it really means to live in and support a community. ‘Community’ as a word can sound so hollow, but I think the pandemic has given us a different understanding of what it means, since our worlds shrank so much.
On the other hand, I don’t even want to think about the economic consequences. For example, I haven’t seen rents for commercial spaces going down, even though so many places have shut. I don’t think it’s looking particularly good for workers’ rights, considering so many people have lost their jobs and are going to be more desperate. And I don’t think it’s looking very good for food justice, in terms of who has access to what.
On the other hand, there are a chosen few who are making so much money from this. I’m afraid this is going to deepen inequalities. Berlin is still in this growing-up phase. It has a lot of struggles with gentrification and it’s certainly trying to do stuff about it, but what is it going to yield? I don’t know. I think, as usual, there will be a whole bunch of different things coming out of this.