Delicious food is spread across the table in front of you, and you can’t wait to tuck in – but first, someone raises their glass in a gesture recognisable almost anywhere in the world. It’s time to toast.
Sure, your stomach is grumbling with the need to be filled, but it’s the polite thing to do, and this will only take a few seconds…
If this is the script inside your head right now, and you’re planning a trip to Georgia, you’re in for a big surprise
A spread of Georgian cuisine
You’d be right in thinking that the apparent birthplace of winemaking has the most elaborate celebratory traditions around the whole subject.
Georgians pride themselves on being some of the most generously hospitable people in Europe, and travellers are always welcome.
Be aware that if you’re invited to a family feast (called a supra), you’re not just pulling up a chair at any old meal – you’re taking part in a tradition that binds Georgian culture together, both at home and abroad.
Everyone has a role to play, and nobody is more important than the tamada, or toastmaster, leading every toast.
The first few toasts will come before you sit down. The next one will probably be ten or fifteen minutes after you take your first bite – and the next another quarter of an hour later, for the entire duration of the feast, which could last up to five hours.
That’s if the toasts are nicely spaced out, of course. If not, you’d better take a deep breath.
The Sculpture of the Toastmaster in Tbilisi
Forget a hasty, wryly self-conscious sentence or two about friends, present and absent. A proper round of Georgian toasts can have you standing so long that your feet start to hurt.
If your hosts take mercy upon you and your unfamiliarity with local tradition, the tamada will take the lead and propose anywhere between three and ten toasts – but this isn’t the norm.
There can be as many as 20 main toasts – and every time the tamada raises a topic to celebrate, anyone around the table has the right to butt in and elaborate with their own toast. You could be there for a while.
Let’s also not forget what a Georgian toast is.
You fill your traditional wine horn or more modern glass with whatever alcoholic drink is on offer, you say a few words, and then you drain the cup to its dregs. The more confidently you do this, the more your hosts will approve.
If you think this sounds like a recipe for truly spectacular inebriation, you’re absolutely on the money – but guests have a lot more leeway to make their apologies and back out gracefully.
The tools of the toastmaster’s trade
One good survival strategy is to only take a full toast when the tamada raises his glass, and just take a diplomatic sip when it’s anyone else’s toast – or you could miss a few toasts and then regain face by proposing your own.
However you do it, the night may rapidly become a bit of a blur. That’s ok. You’re in Georgia, you’re among friends, and everyone else is just as tipsy as you are.
In most cases, the fun will start with a cluster of toasts before everyone starts eating, and they’ll often go like this:
- To God and Georgia – perhaps something like “Praise the Lord, so he may protect us and our country.”
- To the reason why everyone is here today, which may involve celebrating you, the visitor and new friend, so this may be a nice moment to say a few quick words of thanks.
- To God and Georgia again (which may become a recurring theme through the entire feast).
After this, you might have the chance to sit down and put some delicious food in front of your stomach, like delicious stuffed breads containing ground beef or tangy cheese, which you’ll pile onto your plate alongside tomato and parsley salad, chicken stew or peppery meat dumplings. With a bit of luck, some of these dishes will soak up enough of the alcohol to keep you relatively sober as the evening goes on.
Georgian dumplings known as Khinkali
Here are some of the more common toasts you’ll encounter.
- To Parents – celebrating where everyone at the table came from, which leads inevitably to…
- To Ancestors. It’s a chance to recount a little of everyone’s shared history, and to emotionally mention all those who are no longer alive, except in memory and tradition.
- To Children – the next generation of Georgians (and perhaps a reminder of the importance of passing along these traditions to them as early as possible).
- To Country. Ths may not only be to Georgia, if you’re being fully revered as a guest. This may be a good time to affirm keep ties between your country of origin and those of your host, presenting yourself as an embodiment of that connection.
Wine & a view of Tbilisi, Georgia
- To Time And Change. Quoting from an account of a Georgian feast:
“Djumbo starts by addressing humanity’s place in the world. As a toastmaster, he represents a Georgian tradition that makes drinking and feasting into an almost sacred act. With a raised glass, he reminds the table of humanity’s destructive nature and how we are slowly consuming the planet.
He then reminds us that God placed this struggle before us and that He also gave us time so that we could learn. He ends by looking each of us straight in the eye. “I would like to drink to bless the day, the month, the year, the minute we were each born,” he says. “Let’s drink to the time God created human beings.”
– “Why The World’s Greatest Toasts Happen In Georgia” – Pesha Magid, Atlas Obscura
- To Peace. With Georgia’s long and complicated history involving internal wars and occupation by foreign powers due to its unique strategic position, this is a topic that Georgians care deeply about. Without peace, everything – family, home and cultural stability – is under threat.
- To Love. If this is late in the meal and the drink has been flowing freely, this is everyone’s chance to open their hearts and get magnificently choked up. Expect poetry (remembered and improvised), lifelong offers of friendship and much more.
- To The Host Family. If the host wants to start winding things down, this is where they can give the signal by talking about the meal in the past tense – or if someone wants to leave the table and make their unsteady way towards the door, this is how they ease themself out of the proceedings.
Wine in a Georgian wine cellar
At every point, remember you’re present as an unofficial spokesperson for your country – so a few well-chosen facts, quotes and short poems committed to memory will become incredibly useful and impress everyone no end. Just make sure you recall them while you’re sober enough!
However your first Georgian supra goes, I wish you love, happiness and all the joys of life – and the quickest and least painful of hangovers the next day. Let’s all raise a glass to that.
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