At the end of our Georgian FAQ, I briefly mentioned Georgian feasting traditions. It seems like a good time to talk a little bit more about them, since we got some firsthand experience last weekend. A friend invited us to travel with her and her husband to Merisi, a mountainous village in Achara, which is the southwestern region of Georgia that borders Turkey and the Black Sea. She knew a lot of traditional singers in the area, and was bringing her own young daughter along too. Staying in mountain farmhouses, eating homemade local food, and experiencing rural Georgian music and hospitality? Obviously, saying “yes” was a total no-brainer.
In traditional Caucasus custom, the host/guest bond is an absolutely sacred and unshakeable one. In Georgian thinking, the guest is viewed as a gift from God, and you can still observe this kind of attitude in more rural parts of the country. One of Georgia’s most famous poets, Vazha Pshavela, wrote a famous piece called “Host and Guest” that narrates the story of a man who takes in a stranger who, unbeknownst to him, is actually the murderer of his own brother and many of his kin. When the host’s neighbours come to his door with damning evidence, baying for blood, the host takes up arms against them and even kills one, rather than breaking his obligation to protect his guest.
So, yeah. We didn’t get mixed up in any blood vendettas, but we encountered something at least 10% as potentially dangerous. Between 12:30 AM (yes) on Friday night/Saturday morning, and 4:00 PM on Sunday afternoon, we attended no less than SIX feasts. Maybe some of them were considered by our hosts to be nothing more than a light meal, but when guests are involved in Georgia, even a snack basically turns into a massive display of prodigious hospitality that really needs to be seen to be believed.
The “supra” is one of the most visible Georgian customs, one with an immediate appeal and charm for many first-time visitors to the country. Picture this: a long narrow table set with anywhere from eight to twenty (or more) types of food, including bread, cheese, fresh and cooked vegetables, stews, various kinds of meat, all divided onto small plates so every different dish is within arm’s length of every diner. As the meal progresses, servers keep bringing out new dishes, to the point where they’re literally stacking plates of food on top of each other. It may not seem logical, but the visual aesthetic of abundance is a crucial part of the experience (those who help with preparation usually go home with a lot of leftovers).
It’s not just about food, though; at one end of the table you’ll encounter a figure called the “tamada” or toastmaster, who is responsible for the flow of events and for directing the toasts. In old tradition, these had to follow a rather fixed order, something like first to God, then to St. George, then to Mary, to various persons present, to ancestors who have passed on, to future generations, etc. Today, the toasts are more free and fitted specifically to the occasion.
If you’re lucky, the toasts will be made with wine. I mentioned in the earlier post about how important wine is as a national symbol here (I was just told by a museum guide today that Georgia has 5000 kinds of grapes and 3000 kinds of wine). If you’re less lucky, the toasts will be made with chacha, the local grape-derived vodka/moonshine.
Wine toasts have several special kinds of vessels associated with them; a special toast may need to be given with a ceramic bowl that can be reasonably sized or absolutely monstrous. Sometimes a drinking horn or “qantsi” is used (either ceramic or an actual animal horn), with the idea being that the curved shape of the horn forces the drinker to finish all the wine in one gulp, since it can’t be placed back on the table without spilling the contents.
Supras are also the occasion for a lot of singing. Georgia has a whole genre of “table songs” specifically designed for this kind of setting. At the biggest of the supras we attended last weekend (a combination 3rd birthday and baptism celebration for the host’s grandson), I sang the bass part in a trio for a “Mravalzhamier” (a very common type of table song) that I’d learned on a previous trip to Georgia. Watching the reaction of the host and guests was humbling, as I was then immediately toasted myself by about a dozen different older men, who praised the love of foreigners for Georgian music and deplored the lax attitude of many of their fellow citizens toward their own traditions. I was also requested to make another toast with the drinking bowl (like all the adult men present, I’d already made one for the young boy being honoured with the feast)…fortunately this was a wine-only supra, and no chacha was in sight, or I probably wouldn’t have made it through the three supras that were still to come.
Anyway, this is just a brief look at Georgian hospitality, and a heartfelt “didi madloba” (big thanks) for the graciousness of the people of Merisi, who so generously welcomed a family of Canadian strangers, and for the kindness of my teacher Nino and her husband Lasha, who brought us on their family vacation. As always, Rosa offered us immediate passage through the differences of language and custom. Next time, I promise to finally talk about Georgian music, the reason we’re here in the first place!