EurasiaNet's photoessay from the other day about how the supra -- the traditional eating and drinking feast that is a bedrock of social life in Georgia -- is evolving and modernizing is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how Georgian society itself is changing.
Interested in getting more details about the story and the evolution of the supra, I sent several questions to its author, the Tbilsi-based Molly Corso, an American married to a Georgian. Our exchange is below:
1. What gave you the idea for this story?
I first started wondering about changes to the supra after I read a blog post on changing views toward the funeral feast on ISET.ge, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. After I read it, I started noticing that, fairly often, when my husband and I met up with friends, there would be an argument about who should be tamada (the toast master) since no one wanted to be saddled with the role of drinking so much. Sometimes there would be little disputes over whether or not it is necessary to say all of the traditional toasts. I started to wonder if it was something isolated, just among my husband's circle of friends and relations, or if it was a wider trend.
2. Based on your own experience, how would you describe the role of the supra in Georgian life?
For a long time, I thought of the supra like a dinner party, albeit a dinner party with a lot of alcohol and mountains of dirty dishes. But the longer I live here, the more it seems that the supra is a lot more. It is a chance to meet with friends, a chance to catch up, but - at least in my family - it is also an important ritual that reinforces family ties. When we have a supra, my husband always tries to invite new relations - either those who have joined the family by marriage or second/third cousins who have fallen out of contact - or new acquaintances. The supra is a chance to sound out these new additions to our circle, to get a feel for their character, and usher them into the family.
3. You mentioned that in some cities, women are having male-free supras. How is that being received?
I have not heard any opposition to it, and, to be honest, people did not bring it up unless I asked about it so my impression is that it is seen as a normal part of women becoming more independent, at least in the cities.
Another word about gender roles at the supra. When I first came to Georgia eleven years ago, the supra seemed to me to represent the essence of women's servitude. Men ordering the women around, men enjoying the food, men drinking themselves to sleep. But after experiencing the supra both as a guest and a host, it doesn't appear so straightforward to me anymore. Men, especially the host, play a large role in preparations as well, and are usually responsible for specific dishes like mtsvadi (like Georgian BBQ). Women are not restricted from joining the supra, at least not at any I have attended. But there is usually a more interesting supra-lite taking place in the kitchen, where the children and the hostess/neighbors are having a much more relaxed party. When I have the choice, I prefer the kitchen supra to the formal one - not because I am not allowed to sit at the table, but because the rules of the supra can make it a bit monotonous to sit in one place, talking mainly to the people on either side of you, for hours on end.
4. You mentioned the innovation of using of beer for toasting, instead of vodka. Have any new food items become part of the modern supra?
Yes, in fact there are. I have been to several supras where they had variations of pizza - very Georgianized (is that a word?), and very tasty. When I have been at a supra in a restaurant, there has often been the chef's signature dish - at one supra I attended at a hunter's restaurant, they had a delicious take on pot pie, made with meat, potatoes, and mushrooms, and baked in a kesi or traditional clay dishes. I was at a supra not long ago where they served barbecued salmon - a great addition.
5. Could you describe the most memorable supra you have attended?
The most memorable supra I have attended was my brother-in-law and sister-in-law's wedding. It was the first large supra (about 250 guests) I was able to witness (and help with) from the very beginning to the very end and it was like being part of a stage production. It took two days of cooking and prep work before the wedding, and there were follow up supras for two days following the wedding to consume all the food. There were at least two pre-supras to feed all the neighbors and people who came to help cook and prepare the feast, and something as simple as making sure there were enough clean spoons and forks required two women (one for cleaning and one for putting down the place setting). The wedding supra itself was fantastic. The tamada was everything the tradition promotes: a relative who knew enough about everyone to turn the traditional toasts into colorful, insightful tributes to the family. And, there was enough give and take to allow people to dance when they had had enough of the drinking.
I think, however, that I remember that supra best because it was the first time I truly realized how communal the supra is. Every neighbor on my in-laws' street (male and female) helped make that supra possible. I know it sounds trite but people really did put aside their differences to pitch in and help make the supra happen.