My host sister Diana got married last Sunday and Monday. Yes, weddings here last two days, the average one nets 500 guests, and 95% of those people don’t even witness the marriage ceremony. At least in Diana’s case, that five-minute piece seemed like pure formality: the wedding really begins with the reception, which is as much a celebration of food, wine, and folk dancing as it is of the couple themselves.
When we (the wedding party and closest family friends and relatives) arrived at the banquet hall where the reception was held, the rest of the guests were already digging into the plates and platters of cold dishes arrayed before them. I found a seat between a jolly older man named Jumberi and a young friend of the bride, Khatuna. No sooner had I filled my glass with sparkling water (no still water was served) than Jumberi had requested a second for me so he could fill it with wine: the tamada (appointed toastmaster) was announcing the first toast over his microphone.
“This is a toast to our motherland, to Georgia,” Zumberi explained to me in Russian as the tamada waxed poetic about the glories of Sakartvelo (as “Georgia” is known here. Georgian belongs to a language family all its own: while it has borrowed words from various conquerers over the years–Russian, Turkic, Persian–it is not related to any of them.)
He filled the juice glass the busser brought with amber-colored wine from the nearest pitcher. The wine, which was homemade by the groom’s family, is technically a white but takes its color from the grape skins, which are fermented along with the grape must in the Georgian tradition. No red wine was served, which I’m told is the norm at long feasts like this one: they believe you can drink more white wine than red without getting completely slaughtered.
If Georgian women pride themselves on their ability to produce awe-inspiring spreads in tiny kitchens, men here tell each other stories about how much alcohol they can put back without losing their composure (or so it seems to them, anyway…). They gulp–not sip–wine, so “wine glasses” are considered impractical and are rarely used.
Zumberi and I clinked glasses with those around us. “Gaumarjos!” we said to one another, the Georgian equivalent of “cheers.” The wine tasted sweet and fruity, with none of the acidity I’ve come to expect from homemade wines here. It’s a heartier white than most, which helped it stand up to the bold flavors on the table: red meat, smoked cheese, garlic, fresh herbs, pomegranate and sour plum.
I began sampling from the dishes nearest me. First, pkhali, a pungent puree of beet greens, garlic, and walnuts sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Then a slice of white bread spread with butter and topped with salmon roe. A spoonful of mayonnaisey chicken salad, corn grits (ghomi) and smoked cheese, and a chicken thigh and leg, skin fried to a pleasantly salty crisp. Another toast, this time to–what else?–love. Though I’ve only drunk a sip, Zumberi is obliged by tradition to refill my glass to the brim.
“You must do better than that next time!” he urges me on with a smile. And, oh, how many “next times” there will be over the course of this celebration!
Stay tuned for the rest of the story.