How to Eat a Georgian Table Feast
Our hosts taught us to experience the never-ending Georgian Feast like locals, dining and toasting in wine cellars, fine restaurants, vineyards and the homes of family chefs all over the country.
But before we figured out how the locals do it, we ran into a few problems.
Everything except for dessert is laid out on the table. No surprises, no secrets. You load your plate, eat it and then go in for seconds, if you’re committed to the idea of feasting.
But what if, after you’ve consumed your second plateful, the hostess brings out a sizzling leg of lamb fresh from the oven? And then a whole planked king salmon surrounded by roasted new potatoes and sautéed chanterelles? And then amazing little pastry flutes stuffed with walnut paste and pomegranate seeds? Purple slices of eggplant rolled around roast peppers and slathered in cold-pressed sunflower oil? Crispy pork kebabs that an unseen person was slyly roasting over the outdoor grill while you were inside loading up your plate? Hot gooey wedges of your favorite pizza, for god’s sake?
What would you do? Lament and beat your breast, like we did?
Before we internalized the rules, each new round of delicious-looking dishes was met with cries of dismay rather than appreciation. We longed to show respect and follow Georgian customs, but we were unprepared for the onslaught of courses. We were eating like super-sized Americans, and it caught up with us before the feast was halfway through.
Simple, but not easy, when everything is so mouthwatering.
Here are some helpful hints:
- A true Georgian Feast, called a supra, can last for three or four hours, so relax – you have plenty of time to eat and drink your fill. And you should make the most of that time, taking breaks and breathers.
- Nothing is ever taken off the table, so you can always find your favorite dish again when you find yourself able to eat just a smidgeon more.
- The tamada, or toastmaster, will propose lengthy toasts at any time during the meal. Five minutes of listening and deep breathing will do wonders for your gastric stamina.
- Georgian songs will be sung. If you want, you can join in on the drone part as the two higher parts riff and warble. You can’t eat or drink while you’re singing – another convenient break.
The wine at a Georgian Feast is every bit as important as the food: A feast is meant to be a time when “sorrow and worry take wing.” Georgian wine is exquisite and abundant – and plenty of wine means plenty of toasting. Every Georgian feast must have a tamada, or toastmaster, to lead the toasting.
In between bites, the tamada stands and presents the traditional toasts – to Georgia, to God, to friendship, to women, and to family – waxing eloquent and giving guests a moment to reflect and digest. The wine flows more and more freely as the guests drink to these and to any other topic that the tamada finds compelling. An intuitive tamada will skillfully encourage everyone to loosen up, presenting them with ideas to contemplate as the wine works its magic, transforming strangers into intimate friends, and an ordinary evening into a jubilee.
There should be a special word in Georgian for “the emotionally delicate period of time after imbibing an exact but unspecified amount of wine,” and the tamada knows exactly when that is. He (it’s usually a “he”) can tell when it’s time to raise a glass to all the loved ones that we have lost, shedding a tear or two before leading the group back from the brink by toasting to new life.
The singers don’t grandstand or “perform;” their eyes gaze far away or even close as they tune their voices to each other. The top voices sometimes soar off in different directions like rebellious birds above the flock. Then one or two of the younger singers will jump up and dance, in a whirl of slapping feet, athletic leaps and laughing eyes.
The polyphonic method of singing, with its full-throated voices playing off one another, has been handed down since the 8th century. It’s recognized by UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and it’s an extraordinary experience.
In our first days in Georgia, we Americans worried over that excess, thinking that all this lovingly prepared food might be thrown away. But not a crumb of the overflow will be wasted – it’s packed up and eaten as leftovers, given to those who might need it, or as a last resort, used to fatten the pigs and cheer up the chickens.
We leave feeling completely satisfied, overflowing with wine, stuffed with a surfeit of food, beaming with an overabundance of good will and joy, soul-satisfying songs and youthful dances. We are euphoric – which I believe is the point of a Georgian Feast.
*This article is about the Georgian Republic, between Russia and Turkey, not the peach-growing state of Georgia, between Tennessee and Florida
(Top photo: Sharing food and laughter at a traditional Georgian Table feast in Tbilisi. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes)
PUBLISHED: November 25, 2014