1When I first visited post-Soviet Georgia in 1996, the country was in the grips of serious economic crisis. President Shevardnadze had managed to stabilise the domestic political situation by the mid 1990s, but he did not – and probably could not – alleviate the hardship of daily life in Georgia. Electricity and water shortages, rampant unemployment and meagre wages all contributed to an obvious pessimism about the future.
2Equally obvious, however, was the sheer number of restaurants, cafés and bars all over the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Eating out and feasting was very popular and all newly arrived guests were soon invited to join in. How the Georgians managed to pay for all the food and drinks consumed remained a mystery to most outsiders. Whatever the cost, there was an unquestioning acceptance of eating and drinking as a focus of social activity. The socio-economic situation has improved since the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 but only for the few. The vast majority of the population faces spiralling prices, new tax laws and a rigid policy against street vending and unhygienic conditions. This harsh business climate, however, has seen the emergence of even more cafés and bars: taking into account that only an insubstantial number of restaurants caters especially for tourists (partly because there is not much tourism yet in Georgia), Tbilisi boasts one of the highest densities of public eating-places of all the post-Soviet cities.1
3The temptation here would be to assume that eating and especially drinking are a way of escaping, or compensating for, the harshness of everyday living. The questions are: why are these activities so closely – not to say necessarily – related to socialising and why do they commonly take place outside the home? And why are they usually so tightly codified? With these questions in mind, it is useful to take a closer look at social activity in restaurants, bars and cafés in Tbilisi.2 Three forms of socializing may be identified: banqueting, beer-drinking and tea-drinking, each one associated with a particular set of dishes. In addition to this mainly synchronic approach, I will then introduce a diachronic perspective focusing on the history of the Georgian banquet. Hopefully, this will shed light on the key role of eating and drinking in the maintenance and shaping of identities in modern-day Georgia. It has also proved useful to distinguish between the national and the transnational sphere where certain foodstuffs take on different meanings that reflect essentially new perspectives on nationhood, eg among members of the Georgian diaspora.
4Banquets are commonly held in restaurants. Guests take their places around a single table, which in most cases is overloaded with a variety of hot and cold dishes. Having sat down, people start to eat without further ado, dispensing with any form of banqueting etiquette or, putting it differently, without any ritual framing. Guests serve themselves, taking as much as they want from the dishes on the table.3 Passing food or serving wine is a sign of respect.
5Eating is a more or less informal aspect of Georgian banqueting (supra) unlike drinking which is strictly formal and begins with a toast that gives the proceedings character, structure and meaning. The toasts are proposed and presented by the toastmaster (tamada), followed by the other banqueting guests. Officially, they are supposed to elect the tamada but in most cases he (rarely “she” but see below) has already been appointed by the host(s).4 In addition to being an expert on supra traditions, the tamada must have excellent rhetorical skills. This implies fluency in the language of humour (so as to entertain the guests and make them feel at home) and the language of honour5 (to rekindle traditionalised notions of education and pride). Additionally, the tamada must be able to hold his drink and consume large amounts of wine or schnapps without ever showing the slightest sign of drunkenness.6 This display of physical strength gives him the authority required to control the other guests and generally supervise proceedings.7 Although the public performance of pride and honour is normally attributed to men in Georgia, in the post-Soviet urban context of Tbilisi a few women are famous tamada too.8
A toastmaster at work
6Toasts usually follow a standard, but not rigid, pattern. Certain topics are obligatory (eg toasts to the family and the deceased) and there is an order to be observed (a toast to life, often presented as a toast to children, should follow a toast to the deceased). In addition, toasts to a person’s attributed identity (family, gender) are more common than toasts to their acquired identity (due to their profession or leisure activities) (Chatwin, 1997).
7Some toasts reinforce national values (toasts to the motherland, of course, but also, more subtly, toasts to culture, song and history), gender identity (particularly the obligatory toast to women), family values and peer group identity. They should generally be expressed in honour of a particular person or event and contain no colloquial expressions whatsoever (including swearwords, gossip, or criticism). The language used is characterised by certain formulas (eg gaumarjos9 at the end of each toast) and an elevated, grammatically complex turn of phrase.
8The consumption of alcohol at a Georgian banquet is necessarily related to toasting. Sipping wine is a deadly sin. This ritual consumption of wine and its connection to food bear obvious parallels to the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion. But wine in the context of the Georgian banquet is not exclusively associated with the blood of Christ. Many Georgians believe that wine originated in Georgia and that, as shown by Georgian culture over the ages, it has long played a key role in Georgian identity. They regard wine as a metaphor for Georgian blood and those who share wine at a supra as virtual kinsmen.
9The rules of etiquette at the supra are very strict and function as a formalised system to distribute honour. Everyone should be included in this process but there is a pecking order to be observed. Who the tamada addresses, when, how, in what order and for how long, who drinks when and how much – all of these details serve to display status. In a toast to women or the deceased, boys show that they have become men by standing up while the women and children remain seated.10 Men who stop actively participating in the process of drinking and toasting are unlikely to retain their status as head of the family.11 Generally, toasting encompasses both competition and solidarity.
10The basic supra rules are definitely coded and may not be altered in any way; but suprebi12 differ in their level of formality, depending on the occasion. The most formalised banquets take place as social markers of individual passages like birth, baptism, marriage and death. No major step in the life of a Georgian would be complete without a banquet. On the macro scale, then, the supra functions as a rite of passage.13
Celebratory banquet on the occasion of a wedding
11Formalised supra are commonly classified into two groups: celebratory banquets (lkhinis suprebi) and mourning banquets (ch’iris suprebi). Celebratory banquets are held to mark occasions such as births, baptisms, birthdays and weddings and are usually attended by relatives, neighbours, colleagues and friends. Invitations are by word of mouth, through social networks. When there are too many guests for the tamada to honour each of them individually (eg at wedding banquets, which often include up to 500 people) he will appoint a number of assistants (moadgilebi). Each assistant then repeats the toast, adapting it to include those guests within reach of his voice.
12On the micro scale, formal banqueting rules also apply to informal gatherings of friends where the consumption of alcohol is equally a central element. It is quite common in Tbilisi to see a small group of men sitting around a table in a park café or inexpensive restaurant, eating and drinking alcohol, usually liqueur but sometimes wine or champagne too. The food tends to be no more than a snack, eg khach’ap’uri (filled cheese pastry). In some cases, the “gathering” may consist of just two colleagues who share a bottle of vodka and nibble some nuts. Nevertheless, they will still elect a tamada and structure their conversation as a series of toasts. It is both the rigidity and the popularity of ritualised drinking in Georgia that make it one of the main markers of national and cultural identity. Almost every 30 year-old male I spoke to said he would feel uncomfortable drinking wine or another alcoholic drink14 alone and/or without toasting. The supra may therefore be seen to encompass both the daily and the festive.
13Another, more informal form of Georgian banquet is the keipi. Similar in structure to the supra, it takes its name from an Arabic word meaning “to be in a good mood”.15 The term is also commonly used as a verb, as in the expressions “they are feasting!” (with its slightly euphemistic connotations of “they are wasting their time again!”) and “let’s get drunk!”.
14Every kind of Georgian banquet appears characterised by a particular set of rules but the level of formality ranges from high to low depending on the occasion. It is important to highlight, though, that there is no such thing as a completely informal or a completely formalised supra. To focus on formal banquets alone, at the expense of relatively informal banquets such as the keipi, would exclusively depict the “culture machine” (as Rosaldo [1993: 16, 20] would have it) with the risk of losing sight of the informal, interactive and creative production of culture in everyday situations.
15The tamada’s main duty at a celebratory supra is to entertain the guests and address the guests of honour. His performance must be in accordance with established procedure but equally important is his ability to improvise and propose toasts in an original and personalised way. The slavish following of procedure would be considered bad form. Thus, the topics of the main toasts and the general structure are given but the transmitted elements – or the “tradition” – have to be acquired, integrated in personal, intentional behaviour, to complete the performance and make it successful.
16Mourning banquets are highly formalised supra held in honour of the deceased on three separate occasions: immediately after death, after 40 days and one year later. The style and content of the toasts are quite unlike those at a celebratory banquet.16 In proposing the first toast, the tamada raises his glass to the deceased and wishes him/her eternal beatitude. He then drinks to the memory and heavenly wellbeing of the deceased’s dead relatives, starting with the patrilineal relatives, from the oldest to the youngest generation.17 Next, he toasts all the relevant family members of the deceased, followed by the bereaved themselves. What matters here is the strict distinction between the living and the dead.
17The tamada may occasionally include some short memorial anecdotes but as a rule, he will speak in a straightforward way without much rhetorical manoeuvring. The supra attendants do not repeat the toast but swallow their wine in one gulp, first uttering the words xsovna iqos (“May he/she be remembered!”). The total number of toasts must be uneven, so too must the number of spoonfuls taken by the attendants from certain ritual dishes that are reserved for sad supra and passed from hand to hand (k’olio, shilaplavi).
18In the East Georgian highlands, beer is brewed for ritual purposes and exclusively drunk after toasting. The consumption of bottled beer, on the other hand, serves as a marker of informality, satirising ritual behaviour and turning the rules of the supra upside down. Either no toasts are proposed at all, or in such a way as to reverse the meaning. A toast in praise of the President or the police, for instance, would be intended as an insult.
19This practice turns industrial beer into the antonym of wine, toasts into maledictions and the communal consumption of beer into the “other” of the supra. As a result, beer-drinking leads to informal behaviour and a hidden critique of present circumstances.18 While the supra encourages harmonious exchange, beer-drinking plays on discord. There is another reason yet to interpret industrial beer as the antonym of wine: it can be consumed without a companion. The consumption of beer does not necessarily cause communion and formality.
20This difference in consumption indicates a culture-immanent system of classifying beverages.19 Wine is charged highly symbolically and inscribed in strongly formalised social contexts and practices. Other alcoholic drinks like vodka or champagne entail ritualised behaviour and indicate the celebratory occasion of social gatherings. Beer is divided into homebrew, the ritual drink of highland Georgia, and industrial brews, which function as inverted ritual drinks. Cold soft drinks have no semantic meaning.
21Beer is traditionally drunk with certain dishes such as dried salted fish and khink’ali. The first is a popular Russian snack probably introduced to Georgia in Soviet times. It is only consumed by men and mostly in public places or neighbourly backyards. The fish meat is extracted with the fingers then moistened in the mouth with the beer before being swallowed. Sharing dried fish serves as a public display of anti-bourgeois workers’ pride and male solidarity.
22A khink’ali is a meat-filled dumpling, the size and shape of a child’s fist. Less popularly, it is filled with cheese, mushrooms or potatoes. The dumplings are usually ordered by the dozen or half-dozen per person and served hot, with no other garnish than coarsely ground black pepper. The trick is to eat them without spilling the content, holding the khink’ali with both hands and sucking out the filling with every bite, being careful not to break the dumpling. The doughy part on top serves as a handle to hold the steaming dumpling.
23No one would think of eating khink’ali without beer and/or vodka, a combination served by a variety of restaurants that specialise in this type of food pairing. Known as sakhink’le, meaning “place of khink’ali”, they offer a limited menu composed mainly of khink’ali, kababi (first cousin of a Turkish kebab) and mc’vadi (Georgian shashlik). Kababi consists of spicy meatballs, traditionally made of mutton and wrapped in lavashi (Georgian flatbread). A fairly heavy meal not for the fainthearted, kababi is washed down with beer, followed by vodka to aid the digestion. Mc’vadi, often served with a unique Georgian sauce called tqemali20, is the only Georgian dish commonly served at wine- and beer-drinking ceremonies alike. As such, it is an accompaniment to both the conventional toasts proposed at supra and keipi and the “anti-toasts” typical of beer-drinking.
24As mentioned above, different rules apply when drinking beer or vodka. If both are drunk together, vodka “beats” beer in the same way that a high card beats a low one. A “proper” toast requires vodka, and beer looses all semantic meaning. This vodka-beer relationship reflects the way in which Georgians classify alcoholic beverages (see above) and is illustrated by a special beer and vodka drink called chak’iduli. The vodka is poured into the beer through a handkerchief held over the glass that keeps the vodka at the surface, preventing it from mixing with the beer. Previously, the vodka may well have been used for toasting – the beer, on the other hand, simply serves to wash down the vodka.
25In the mid 1990s, a significant number of students spent more time in cafés than at university. Due to widespread corruption, access to university, good exam marks and even graduation diplomas were for sale. Additionally, students were dissatisfied with the curricula that had changed little since Soviet times. Reduced corruption in more recent years has seen an increase in university attendance levels. Yet, the popularity of cafés has remained.
26In addition to tea and soft drinks, cafés serve a variety of sweet and savoury foods. Looking first at the savoury items, these are best represented by khach’ap’uri (Georgian equivalent of fast food), a layered cream cheese pastry similar to Turkish borek.21 Made from a soft cow cheese called suluguni22, khach’ap’uri is popular all over Georgia but varies from region to region. The pastry may be puff pastry (achma), but is more usually prepared from wheat flour, yogurt/kefir, butter, eggs, baking soda and salt. The most famous regional variation is ach’aruli (“à la Ajara”, so-called after the west Georgian region from which it originates), a boat-shaped pastry topped with a fried egg served “sunny side up”. Other well-known variations come from the Georgian regions of Imereti, Rach’a, Pshav-xevsureti and South Ossetia. Each of these local versions serves as a vehicle for the construction of regional identity, linking a particular taste to a particular region.
27Drinking tea and eating khach’ap’uri are not gender-dependent but re-enact peer group affiliation. In the case of tea, the peer group consists of female and male students who are friends (megobrebi23) or at least acquaintances (amkhanagebi). The café provides them with an ideal place to chat, gossip, exchange news, discuss politics or sports, and – last, but not least – meet people of the opposite (or the same) sex in an informal atmosphere. Banquets, keipi and beer drinking groups, on the other hand, are all strongly male-dominated and do not encourage contact between the sexes.
28The relatively informal café setting is popular with people of all ages and social strata not just students. Cafés encourage a private, informal pattern of behaviour that is in marked contrast to the public display of pride and honour required at a supra as the most popular form of socialising in Georgia. There are less gender-role expectations in cafés – people can take a break from their role obligations in everyday and festive life. Although not separated by gender, people who share tables in cafés tend to be members of the same age and/or interest-group.
29Turning now to sweet foods, and cakes in particular, the social embedding subtly changes. Cakes, as symbols of sweet food in general, are traditionally associated with the realm of the female in post-socialist and European countries, and Georgia is no exception.24 Georgian men do eat sweets, fruits and cakes at the end of a supra but only women are said to enjoy these desserts more than the meat course that comes before. Eating cakes and drinking tea are therefore as much a part of socialising for Georgian women as beer/vodka drinking rituals are for the men.25
30A good example of the cake/meat dichotomy is provided by one of the rare vegetarian fast food restaurants in Tbilisi. Also functioning as a café,26 the restaurant serves tea, coffee and fresh fruit juice in addition to a range of light vegetarian dishes, khach’ap’uri and cakes. It is particularly popular with women since the complete absence of alcohol and meat makes it highly unsuitable as a place to celebrate maleness. Men do go there but they tend to be outnumbered by the restaurant’s (mainly well-educated) young women customers. Most of these men are local students or members of the new elite, displaying their “progressive” attitude. They embody and incorporate a shift in the coding of masculinity in contemporary Georgia.
31Based on the foregoing, we may identify at least six major forms of public communication that are associated with eating and drinking in post-Soviet Georgia: (1) formalised speech, (2) colloquial speech, (3) irony, (4) flirting, (5) the exchange of information, and (6) communication with the dead.
32Formalised speech is connected to the realm of the festive and inscribed in performative contexts (here: banquets). It could also be described as staged communication. Colloquial speech is practised in peer group contexts and characterised by the use of language codes indicating proximity and intimacy. Its usage privatises public spaces like cafés. Irony – as employed by “anti-toasting” beer-drinking rituals – makes fun of standard codes, but also reinforces them since there is no anti-structure without structure. Flirting is difficult in such a highly gendered society as Georgia, and cafés are one of the few places that encourage informal communication between the sexes. The exchange of information, as happens at banquets and ritualised tea and beer drinking events, is a public need countering the power of television and the media. Finally, commensality practised at mourning banquets extends to the sphere of the dead.27
33Taking all the aforementioned forms of communication into consideration, the importance of cafés, bars, and restaurants in post-Soviet Georgia becomes understandable. Eating and drinking in public frames discursive practices associated with theatres, homes, cabarets, discotheques, TVs and cemeteries, thus endorsing and relating both the public and the private, the living and the dead, men and women, values and humour, the serious and the amusing, society and the individual. Thus, all forms of conventional social contact within Georgian society can (and most likely will) find expression in culinary terms.
34The multiple meaning and context of food is contrasted by its strict and highly conservative code of preparation. This applies as much to food served in restaurants, cafés and bars (such as khink’ali and khach’ap’uri) as to banqueting fare. Such obvious conservatism is all the more surprising when one considers that variety is at the very heart of Georgian cuisine. Goldstein’s book on “The Georgian Feast” (1999) is a vivid example of the multi-facetted art of cooking in Georgia. The success and quality of banquets in particular depend on a variety and abundance of dishes. In the words of the German linguist Kotthoff: “The syntagm of the present culinaria is much bigger than in Western countries” (1993: 5; translation F.M.).28
35The dishes themselves, however, must all be made in a certain way, using approved (and usually compulsory) ingredients. Any departure from the norm is frowned upon. Again, according to Kotthoff, this faithful replication of the inherited “culinary syntagm”, intensifies the formality of the supra and with it, the “sign of respect for the guest” (Kotthoff, 1993: 5). Furthermore, the conservative rules applying to cooking etiquette help to reinforce a concept of “typical Georgian cuisine”. This is as true for the outsider, who is confronted with repetitive patterns when eating in Georgia or with Georgians, as it is for the Georgians themselves who know which dishes to expect when feasting with their countrymen. Cooking etiquette, therefore, creates a culinary code for national identity.
36In terms of a semantic system, Georgian cuisine is both open and conservative. On the one hand, the repertoire of “Georgian” meals incorporates dishes from other cultures, such as k’olio and shilaplavi (probably of Turkish origin), both served almost exclusively at mourning banquets. Shilaplavi, a form of spicy rice porridge made with lamb or mutton meat, is a variant of the pilaf or plov famous throughout Central Asia. K’olio is a sweet porridge based on whole-wheat grains, almonds and raisins. It is one of several similar-sounding dishes traditionally served at funeral rituals throughout the Christian-Orthodox world, and was probably introduced to Georgia through the country’s intimate contacts with the Byzantine Empire. In both cases then, the key marker of a major social event is a dish that has been adopted from another culture and integrated into “typically Georgian” mores and culture. As these examples illustrate, “Georgian cuisine” incorporates influences from a variety of (mostly involuntary) cultural contacts. In addition to the Ottoman, Caucasian and Byzantine worlds, the Persian Empire also left its mark on Georgian culinary culture as names for foodstuffs (eg badrijani for eggplant) indicate.29
37On the other hand, culinary innovations are slow to win acceptance as representatives of “Georgian food” (cf banquets), and deviations from the norm are rarely tolerated. “Georgian cuisine” may therefore be seen to reflect a very specific attitude towards national identity based on the “Georgianisation” of adopted elements and the reproduction of behavioural codes entrenched in Georgian “tradition”.
38If we assume that Georgian cuisine encodes national identity, then eating is a way of incorporating and performing the nation. This would explain why banquets in Soviet times were viewed with suspicion by the state authorities. In the eyes of a law passed in 1975 in Soviet Georgia, large banquets associated with major life events such as births, marriages and deaths, were dismissed as a public display of traditional attitudes, opposed to the ideal of the Homo Sovieticus. The supra became a “harmful custom”.30
39In post-Soviet Georgia, the strictly prescribed way of public eating and drinking evokes the nation in quotidian and festive life. This is particularly true in expatriate circles where tangible reference to the “motherland” becomes a scarce resource. As a result, certain condiments have taken on different or more emphatic meaning, becoming culinary markers of national belonging. For many Georgians living abroad, the “taste” of Georgia is personified in the aforementioned sauce tqemali, commonly accompanying roasted meat like shashlik or fried potatoes. As an example for the embodiment of national identity, I would like to explain how tqemali metaphorically becomes the “third blood” of expatriated Georgians.
40The sauce is based on wild plums (prunus cerasifera), a major ingredient of Georgian cuisine31 and grown almost exclusively in Georgia and Eastern Turkey. The sauce itself is made from a variety of spices and herbs (such as coriander, another marker of Georgian cuisine), garlic and sometimes lemon juice. Preparation varies from household to household, since this is one of the rare Georgian specialities to cater for individual tastes. Additionally, the transmission of individual modes of preparation serves to demonstrate family wisdom and encodes family identity.
41The popularity of tqemali in Georgia is comparable to that of ketchup in the USA. In some expatriate circles, the question of its acquisition becomes a question of the availability of national resources. Consequently, the availability or production of tqemali is hotly discussed by a German Internet forum on Georgia:32 what matters most is having “connections” back home that can secure “supplies”. Tqemali is also well known in Hungary because “wherever there are Georgians, there will be tqemali, too”.33 It tastes “like mum used to make”34, is consumed like “manna and ambrosia” and is the “‘third blood’ of every Georgian”.35 According to a popular saying, wine is the second blood of the Georgians. This is why tqemali sauce is such a popular gift among the Georgian diaspora.36 Its symbolic value increases with distance – for some Georgian expatriates it comes to represent the very substance of life itself. The consumption of tqemali provides a kind of personal completeness and union with an imaginary motherland that helps to alleviate the sense of alienation experienced by migrants.
42The title of this paper refers to the making of the Georgian nation in the process of eating and drinking. As analysed above, drinks such as wine and certain specialities such as tqemali have strong semantic connections with the notion of the nation and the concept of kinship. This goes some way towards explaining why eating and drinking are so closely linked to socialising. Within the framework of shared meals and drinks, groups and identities are formed and social categories like kinship and friendship are performed. It is precisely this display that makes eating- and drinking-out so popular.
43Consequently, to interpret excess eating and drinking as passive acts of compensation and escapism is to neglect their creative potential. Eating and drinking in Georgia is less about nutrition and more about a collective form of “self-cannibalism”, ensuring the survival of the national spirit within the body of each of its members.
44Eating and drinking as a popular means of preserving nationhood is a long and powerful tradition in Georgia, a country dominated by invaders for most of its history (mainly Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, and Russians). Gradually, Georgian cuisine adopted culinary elements from the ruling cultures, incorporating them into ritual displays of national culture.
45Even more important, however, is the meaning of banqueting in the Russian-dominated past, which began with the annexation of Georgia by the Tsarist Empire in 1801. Since the Russians, unlike former invaders, shared the same religion as the Georgians, religion was no longer a distinguishing factor between “us” (the Georgians) and “them” (the Russians). The “self-othering” of the Georgian nation had to be based on something else: folk culture37. The supra soon became a symbol of that cultural otherness, a manifestation of “Georgian” hospitality based on a distinct way of eating, drinking and feasting. It remained a prime cultural marker of national identity well into Soviet times, embodying resistance to becoming a Societas Sovietica. For post-Soviet Georgians, the supra seems to offer permanent counter-assurance of cultural authenticity in the face of an all-levelling globalisation. This is particularly true of the many expatriate Georgians who have fled the political and economic instability of more recent times. For the Georgian diaspora, the table is a central place for socialising with fellow Georgians, and the rules of the supra often serve as a way of explaining Georgian culture to foreigners. The consumption of culinary specialities such as tqemali is a way of incorporating the nation.
46In addition to the festive fare served at banquets, Georgian fast food such as khach’ap’uri and khink’ali also embody the taste of the nation, a taste that is “ours” alone. If we consider cuisine as an example of and metaphor for national identity, the opposition to the transnational shift in eating habits is the continuation of a striving for independence. Nominally independent since 1991, Georgia is too small and powerless to remain firmly in control of its own affairs. In this context, the West is both a blessing and a curse: it guarantees Georgian independence in the face of neo-colonial Russian policy, but it dismisses cultural differences for the sake of open markets. The widespread preference for “Georgian” cuisine over Western fast-food indicates considerable resistance to globalisation despite the pragmatic pro-Western policy adopted by post-Soviet Georgia.38