I write this post from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where I am waiting to board a plane bound (eventually) for the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which I will be calling home for the next several months. Teaching English by day, I plan to spend the rest of my time trolling hill and dale “in pursuit of deliciousness,” as promised by the sub-subtitle of this blog.
Georgia lies tucked into the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus range at the juncture of Europe and Asia. Slightly larger than the state of West Virginia, it shares borders with Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and the Black Sea to the west. A favorite Georgian creation myth illustrates the nation’s passion for the pleasures of the table: It is said that when God was doling out land to the world’s various peoples, the Georgians were too busy feasting and toasting to notice and they missed the deadline for choosing a homeland. God came by to scold them for ignoring his instructions, but was pleased to find them enjoying the bounty of the earth at a grand communal table, bending under the weight of fine wine and food. When the tamada (ritual toast master) rose to thank God for the magnificent world he had created, God was so touched that he gave the Georgians the land he had been reserving for himself–Paradise.
Other myths, too, color Georgia’s history. Legend has it that Prometheus lies here–chained to a peak of the Caucasus for eternity while vultures peck at his liver–as punishment for stealing fire from the gods. Jason and his Argonauts set sail from Greece toward ancient Colchis (what is now western Georgia) to seek the Golden Fleece and, with it, the throne of the kingdom of Thessaly. The sorceress Medea, princess of Colchis and granddaughter of the sun god Helios, helped him fulfill his quest.
Sadly, Georgia is most well-known in the West today for its short-lived 2008 war with Russia over the claims to independence of separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Having spent a significant amount of time living and studying in Russia, I’m curious to learn how recent events have influenced people’s attitudes toward Russia, its people, and its language (which I hope to be able to use to communicate until my Georgian vocabulary expands beyond its current boundaries of “hello,” “thank you,” and “cheese bread.”)
My Russian host mother introduced me to Georgian cuisine while I was studying abroad in Moscow. The tamer flavors of central Russian cooking left her tastebuds wanting, and she turned to Georgian dishes for their lively spices and garlicky kick. Influenced by Middle Eastern, Persian, and Mediterranean foodways but decidedly not a melange of the three, Georgian cuisine thrives on a balance of nutty, tart, and herbal flavors. Walnuts are used copiously, both as a flavoring and a binding agent, as are a wide variety of herbs and beans. Fruits make frequent appearances in savory dishes, but Georgians prefer the tang of pomegranate, immature grape, and sour plum to the sweeter prunes and quince commonly used in Persian dishes. Grape vines criss-cross the country, and at-home wine production is still common.
I will be living in the city of Batumi, situated on the Black Sea coast just 12 miles from the Turkish border. Its region–Achara– boasts a subtropical climate ideal for citrus groves, tea plantations, palms and magnolias. Over the course of the next several months, I will be sharing my observations and taste impressions from this small corner of the world. If you are curious about a particular aspect of food culture in this region, please don’t hesitate to share it with me. I welcome post “assignments” and ideas of all sorts! I am not sure how stable and consistent my Internet access will be at this point, but will do my best to post as frequently as possible.