“Local” is often used as a buzzword for sustainable practice but what it means depends entirely on context: local for whom? A Berlin conversation between the blogger and founder of the Feminist Food Club Mary Scherpe and the researcher, essayist and political geographer Sinthujan Varatharajah about interpretations, identifications and implications of the term “local” with respect to food.
Mary Scherpe: Sinthujan you address subjects that don’t tend to come up in a lot of other media, and you always do it very honestly, very openly, and very confrontationally. For me, you are one of the voices in Berlin that is most worth following. When did you first move to Berlin?
Sinthujan Varatharajah: 2015.
M: So you’re still “new” here. That’s also an interesting topic: when does one become a Berliner? I can say that after 18 years of living in Berlin I would still not be accepted by some.
S: I have no ambitions in that respect. I don’t adorn myself with local labels. I simply say “I live here”. What other people do with that is up to them.
M: I would like to talk to you about locality, or the buzzword “local” because at the end of last year you wrote a relatively long Instagram story series about the district of Wedding, where you live. Tell us what your story was about, or what gave you the impulse to do these stories.
S: The stories were more or less a tour of the neighbourhood where I live. The impetus was a brochure I saw in a café a month or two ago that was published by the local council and called “Support Your Local”. It focused specifically on the area around Müllerstraße. That is to say, in this brochure, various cafés, restaurants but also cultural venues were presented that were to be supported during the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. That led me to walk around the area to visit some of the places that were mentioned and to put them in the socio-economic context of the area.
M: The strange thing about this brochure is that it played with what Wedding is known for [It featured a photo of an Anatolian tea glass on the front]. And then only recommends places that don’t correspond to that at all.
S: Exactly: “false packaging”. This branding is interesting in the sense that the cover, as you mentioned, refers to an association with Wedding that is positive, but also mostly negative. As soon as you open this brochure, however, you have the feeling that you are in [the more gentrified, upmarket area of] Berlin Mitte and not in Wedding. I found this contradiction very intriguing. It made me ask the question: Who is this brochure for? And what is it selling? For whom, but above all by whom? Especially because this brochure was not made by a café or a team of Instagram influencers. It was a guide that was commissioned and also paid for by the local council.
M: Many of the places listed in this brochure, which you also discuss, explicitly use “being local” / “supporting your local” as part of their marketing strategy.
S: Written in English too.
M: As you also say in your stories, “local” in this case is not referring to the people who live there, but something else. What is it referring to then?
S: I think this whole concept of locality, and how it is used and applied here in the brochure, is based on an innocent idea that locality is socially coherent, economically coherent, and that everything that is local is worthy of support. And accordingly, social conflicts take place elsewhere between different localities that are not in the same neighbourhood. I think what is suggested here is that local is the neighbourhood, but the neighbourhood is seen as a unit but not necessarily perceived and reflected in the conflicts of everyday life that take place in the streets, in the houses, in the backyards but also in the shop windows. I find that misleading but also very telling. It reflects the policies that the district and the city always promote and practice themselves and the population groups that are at the centre of such debates.
M: What I find interesting about these shops is that they use Wedding as a backdrop relatively uncritically as a marketing tool. There’s an example in Neukölln [another district in Berlin], that called itself a “neighbourhood restaurant” in the beginning. I would have bet a lot of money that they don’t really know their neighbours, that they don’t know exactly who lives there. In terms of price and the way they serve food, it was all in English, no offer for the neighbourhood, and yet they make use of their location as a rooted, neighbourhood idea as a selling point and to appear rougher and edgier. A prominent example of this in Wedding is [the restaurant] Ernst. They have a very hard aesthetic, with a heavy iron door and closed curtains.
S: Exactly. They were very widely represented in the press and had a lot of publicity with respect to their approach to the logistics of the food chain and resources. But at the same time, they moved into one of the poorest streets and districts of Berlin, of Germany, and really sealed themselves off there with that iron door and curtained opaque window that separates the traffic and the street from the restaurant, and separates the restaurant from the street. The setting is actually a backdrop that is in some ways irrelevant but at the same time is relevant, in terms of advertising, because it shapes the coverage. Every article that focuses on Ernst also focuses on the area and the contrast to this now Michelin-starred establishment.
M: The tasting menu there now costs 180 euros.
S: I think that’s when you suddenly realise what kind of exploitative relationships these are, they are not based on reciprocity, but rather reflect a one-sided dimension. They profit from the [low] rents, but at the same time from the ambience that makes the restaurant more interesting and also makes the operators more interesting because that is not their milieu. Accordingly, this so-called contradiction is always thematicised, it becomes part of the restaurant’s marketing. Of course, it sounds nice when you read it in Die Zeit [a German national newspaper] but when you live in the street and are confronted with this restaurant every day, then it is a different story. It’s also about the fact that the journalists who report on these restaurants don’t come from these areas, don’t live in these areas or visit these streets themselves. They walk around like flaneurs and then leave again. It’s a network of people from similar circles, similar milieus, with similar interests, and similar perspectives and knowledge, who then talk about themselves, so to speak, and make themselves relevant to each other.
M: Why this restaurant is now at the core of this discussion, even though there are other restaurants in Berlin that do the same, is of course not only because they are in this location, but because their food is extremely insistent on locality. They cook in a Nordic style, using Japanese techniques. What they serve there are carefully prepared “locally grown vegetables”. It’s not about local food, but their relationship with local farmers and the small farms they work with that adds a lot of flair to the story. There’s such a crass contrast there but most people just don’t notice it.
S: I think that’s because most people don’t engage with the area and the actual locations that the restaurants are in. It’s always just about the relationship between the city and the surrounding area, but not really about the city as a space of tension in itself. I think this is always forgotten, that within a city, the most diverse realities collide. That within two residential buildings, within one residential building, there can be an extreme wealth gap. A great many problems can be very quickly misunderstood if one simply takes the city as a coherent whole.
M: There is another restaurant, Nobelhart & Schmutzig, which opened in 2015/16. They also have this local theme and also the Copenhagen-René-Redzepi-atmosphere that has drifted over to here. They have taken it to the extreme and now adopted the slogan that nothing they use comes from more than 80 km or 150 km away. So no lemon, no pepper, etc. The food there tastes undeniably great. I found it very exciting as a creative or artistic approach to cooking. The problem, I think, is that the way it’s communicated often becomes so uncomfortable because it has an elitist history that tends to get completely forgotten.
S: I also think that essentialist blood and soil ideas are involved here. From naturalism and the return to the local, to nature, to the original. I find this particularly difficult when we put it in relation to non-white people who also run restaurants, run businesses, and for whom food also has to be sourced and gathered. It begs the question: what do racism and right-wing structures mean to the non-white restaurant operators in a city like Berlin, who have grown up and socialised here? What does Brandenburg [the, mainly rural, region around Berlin] mean to them? What effect does this have on their logistics chain? Where can they source [their ingredients] where they are also safe, and feel safe and respected?
I think this is something that is very rarely addressed. We always talk about this relationship with rural farms and farmers in the surrounding areas but the question is never asked: What does it mean when we come from a city, which is always thought of as progressive, to the countryside, which is then also always thought of as regressive – and in this sense is also seen as racist. It often happens that racism has another dimension in the countryside – not always but very often. And that of course it also affects the relationships and the possibilities of these people: How they can run their businesses? How they can source food?
My parents live in Bavaria. I grew up in the countryside in a very, very small Tamil community of refugees and the relationship with the farmers there was always very… Well, my parents were interested at some point in building a relationship with the farmers in the surrounding area, because they also wanted to have fresh products for their children. I found it interesting that after 25 years of living in the area, for the first time they dared to approach a farm, about 10 km away from the place where they live, to ask if they could buy lamb there. In the beginning, it took more complicated and complex conversations to understand why they need it, what they want to do with it and how then the price was negotiated. Then it worked out and now he is their go-to farmer – or the farmer they go to when they want local lamb. The logistics behind just getting there – taking this step and being able to approach a farmer are not the same for everyone. You also have to say that privileges work and that some people can operate much more fluidly, that they don’t necessarily have to distinguish between town and country. That they can also have good relationships in the village, and in the city as well. With all non-white, racialised people, that is not always, but very, very often, not the case.
M: The access is absolutely not the same. If you don’t acknowledge that the fact that you can find these small farms and simply build relationships, that it’s part of privilege, then you’re ignoring a very big element. A few years ago, I tried to research farms and producers that are not white-owned. They should exist but they’re not very visible. I know that there are a few Vietnamese gardens and farms in the north-west. To what extent they really work commercially, I don’t know. Basically, the whole farming business is firmly in the hands of big farmers whose history goes back decades – centuries – and on the other side are all the small initiatives, it‘s also clear who owns them.
What annoys me about the whole local thing, as you said, is that it builds on an idea of what is traditionally German and then completely ignores the history of this country. It is actually a myth that we are fabricating as if this country has not always benefited from influences from all over the world. From spices to the popular example of the potato, which is not indigenous to Germany. All of a sudden you start thinking up things that are now ‘original’. Then, of course, the link to something that is völkisch [ethnically national, a term linked to NS ideology], that is “really” German, is not far away.
S: It is revisionist. Like you said that the question of the potato and also the spice, the tomato, etc., all the products that have become part of everyday cuisine here because of colonialism, should be questioned again. The account is not complete. One would like to exclude certain aspects of capitalism in globalisation and the tyranny that also created this culinary landscape as soon as it fits into the world view. But at the same time also negates the realities of life that have been created by it, for animals and humans and nature.
I find it interesting, especially with respect to refugees and migration – which is of course always connected with colonialism – and the people, the various ethnic minorities who also live in this country and have often lived here for generations; who also cultivate their culinary cultures and also try to pass on what that means to them. How, for example, within a context of ‘local’, they find themselves in a situation where they have to justify their own existence, their own consumption. I always find this interesting when I am with my family and they are cooking traditional Tamil food, that all the products that are on the table are not local. They have a transport chain that is incredibly complex – so many cold chains, planes, ships, trains, trucks come between me and these products that end up being part of the everyday cuisine.
It is fascinating how we live in a dependency that forces people – who are quite often from completely different cultures, climatic conditions and agricultural relationships, and accordingly also use completely different foods in everyday life – in a certain way to adapt their eating behaviour, and also to discard many things. Things that we have been fighting for, for a very long time.
I also often think about the supermarket as a reflection of the colonial relationship with capitalism, and also of the standardisation of certain eating traditions. When we go to the supermarket today and we see the products in the vegetable section, there are a lot of new products – pak choi, for example – that are now not just available in Chinese, Vietnamese or other South or East Asian shops, but also Rewe or Lidl [German supermarket chains] sometimes, depending on where you are (North or South Germany), what season it is, or what the mood is like and what the demand is within society.
I remember the moment when mangoes appeared at Aldi-Süd [another German supermarket chain] in 2011. Above the display was a sign with the price that also described how to cut the mango, what to eat and what not to eat. I found that really funny, coming from a culture in which the mango is one of the most important fruits. The mango is now an everyday product that is no longer that special in Germany.
M: What’s interesting about this, to bring in the idea of localness again, is that many of the things that are imported, that Thai or Indonesian restaurants are importing right now, for example, could also grow here. It’s not like you can’t grow coriander on your balcony, you could also grow it for supermarkets. But it is not considered relevant by those who gatekeep or guard these channels, and that is why you have to import it.
S: I would like to mention allotment gardens as an aspect. What I know, also from my own childhood, is that the allotment garden has also established itself among many non-white, non-European people living in Germany, or it has become part of everyday life. Also cultivation in the home garden, or on the balcony. These methods have become very widespread because there is a need for them. With curry leaves, however, there is another issue: their import is banned here because of EU pesticide regulations.
M: Oh, that’s the reason!
S: That’s why you can’t get them fresh from India any more, the biggest growing country. We are experiencing a state of emergency here. In Tamil cuisine, they are an essential ingredient and the basis of many dishes. The freshness of the product is central to the taste and the chemistry between the spice flavours. It is very rare and difficult to find fresh curry leaves [in Gemany]. If they get here, they have to go the long way round, through five, six or eight countries to reach us – not necessarily fresh, but semi-fresh. What some people try is to grow them at home but is a very delicate business because it is a very sensitive plant and extremely difficult to grow. My mother has tried and failed a few times.
This is interesting because it has to do with the relationship to land, and to control. We live in so many dependencies and experience so much precariousness and exclusion that it is very difficult to achieve and feel any kind of self-determination. I think cultivation, growing and harvesting, is psychologically, or at least emotionally, empowering for people. They can have control over what they cultivate, how they plant, when they harvest and what they do with the produce in the end. I think it’s a very common practice, particularly with cuisines that come from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, but it’s not often discussed. It’s very rarely found in documentaries or reports or academic works. There are still a lot of individual stories that are not necessarily connected. We see it separately, for example, from the Vietnamese community – but a lot of what the Vietnamese community does here, for example, is very similar to what we do.
M: I am also reminded that gardening and growing-for-oneself is also something that my family did during the GDR period (I grew up on a farm with a garden), which at the time gave us a chance to create independence from the state-controlled food system. After the Wall came down, it took two or maybe three years for the first supermarket to appear in my area of Saxony. Marktkauf was the first supermarket I saw, at the age of eight or nine, and a stark contrast to the Konsum [state-controlled GDR retailer] where we used to shop before. My mother switched very quickly to Maggi ready meals and Bofrost [frozen food brand] because it made her work a lot easier. Growing things, raising things… We’re all talking about going back to that now during the Covid pandemic but I think most people have no idea how much work it is and what that actually means.
S: I think you always have to put it in connection to capitalism. The history of canned food, for example, was always connected to factories and the need to provide the workers with practical, quick, but also nutritious meals. It ensured the right calorie intake, which ultimately also fed the work and facilitated exploitation because people adapted their consumption and needs to their working hours. That means innovations like frozen pizza, or even the delivery services that offer these products, are all part of an evolutionary chain that is again and again linked to capitalism and the work structures we are caught in and confronted with – that respond to it and also enable and encourage it.
Since I brought up curry leaves, fresh coriander is another good example. I usually get coriander from Kurdish or Turkish shops, even though it is of course a different kind of coriander and often it is not very fresh and withers very quickly. Where my parents live, coriander is not yet that common, so every time they visit me in Berlin it’s one of the first things they buy to take back to Bavaria. These infrastructural difficulties are particularly evident in regions where people live away from big cities like my parents do. They also like to make fresh pomegranate juice. Pomegranates are common in Berlin now, but it took almost 30 years before they were available near where they live. They always had to pre-order pomegranates at Edeka and they took two days to be delivered.
None of this is sustainable, of course, by the standards of the patriotic ‘local’ movement, but I wonder a bit whose realities of life are being met and whose realities of life are being prevented within these discourses? From an ecological perspective, my parents’ behaviour is not particularly conducive to a good carbon footprint. But the point of why we are here, in this landscape, is, of course, linked again and again to colonial activities, to the violence that is reflected in capitalism, in regimes, and also in logistics chains, in food culture and in the exploitation of nature and cultures. Always anchored and implicated. I see that again and again in these encounters, in these confrontations, but I don’t see it thematised enough.
Mary Scherpe is a Berlin-based writer and blogger, covering the antics of Germany’s capital on stilinberlin.de since 2006. In 2017, she fused her interests in food and feminism by co-founding the Feminist Food Club, a community group that supports trans and cis women as well as non-binary people in the food industry, and exposes sexist, classist and racist issues in gastronomy.
Sinthujan Varatharajah is a political geographer and essayist based in Berlin. Their work focus on forced displacement, statelessness and geographies of power. Varatharajah’s exhibition “how to move an arch”, on refugee movements through the divided city of Berlin, was part of the 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Their first book will be published in German next spring.
This is a digest of a discussion in German that was first aired as an IG Live talk from the Food & Stuff series by @stilinberlin on February 16, 2021 (Listen to the original in German here). Edited, translated and published here with kind permission from Mary Scherpe and Sinthujan Varatharajah.
All images © Orlando Lovell