Nothing says more about the Georgian character than the long-standing tradition of the festive meal, or supra. The central aspect of the supra is a series of established toasts, which provide a platform for the toastmaster to deliver lyrical musings on topics of life, death and love.
Supras are held on a variety of occasions – weddings, birthdays, funerals, holidays, baptisms, special events, or for no reason at all – Georgians are not lacking for reasons to eat and drink. Supras can take place among a large group of people in restaurants or banquet halls, or among a small group of friends inside the home.
Food and wine are the cornerstones of this feast, and Georgians take these things very seriously. Dishes like xachapuri (cheese bread), khinkhali(dumplings filled with meat), satsivi (a soup-like dish with turkey), mtsvadi(pork), lobiani (bean-filled bread), exotic salads like badrijani (fried eggplant), and an assortment of cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables, are all staples of the Georgian feast. It should be noted that although supras tend to be exercises in excess, it is not necessary to offer all of these foods to the guests. However, xachapuri and khinkhali are sure to be crowd-pleasers.
Wine is the other important component of the Georgian supra. Many Georgian families have villages or dachas, where they produce their own wines. At a Georgian supra, it’s rare to see a bottle of factory-produced wine on the table. Instead, the wine is usually brought from the village, placed in a large carafe, and then poured into small juice cups as opposed to traditional wine glasses.
Regardless of the quantity of dishes that adorn the table, a supra is not a supra without an orator at the head of the table. Also known as the tamada (თამადა), this person is chosen to lead a series of toasts. Georgia remains a fairly patriarchal society, so with rare exceptions, the tamada is invariably male.
Toasts to God, country, peace, love, health, and family top the list. The toasts are given in an order that varies depending on the region, type of celebration, and the tamada’s preference. He must also see to it that each guest’s glass is full before the next toast begins, as toasting with an empty glass is considered to be almost sacrilegious at the Georgian table.
As the supra wears on, creative toasts and improvisation become the order of the day. This is where the tamada’s true rhetorical skills, charisma, eloquence and penchant for poetic ingenuity are put to the test.
“The tamada should be sincere and charming. He should be able to lead the supra in an original way by making up his own toasts, without being boring or cliché. And of course he should add some witty humour to each toast to keep the supra relaxed and light,” explains Avtandil, 22, a university student, who has attended dozens of supras since being allowed to sit at the table at age 14.
As the head of the table, the tamada must also keep the guests entertained, and make sure people are engaging in the conversation and enjoying themselves. At the same time, the tamada must maintain an appearance of sobriety (nobody wants to hear a slurred toast). This is no small feat, as toasts are given in fairly short intervals.
During each toast, the tamada, along with everyone at the table, is expected to finish their glass of wine in its entirety. In some home settings, a khantsi or drinking horn filled with wine is passed around the table. Singing and dancing are not mandatory, but if the host’s guests are musically inclined, Georgian folk songs are also sung, and the guests are encouraged to dance and sing along.
The winds of change
While the supra is still observed within its traditional framework, the younger generation have taken the supra’s general customs and principles and interpreted them in a way that suits the current realities around them.
In an article published in Eurasianet, sociologist Giorgi Nizharadze, a professor at Tbilisi’s Free University, explained that it is no longer mandatory to observe strict obedience to the tamada or the order of toasts. Supras have become much more informal and less structured.
Giorgi, 47, a filmmaker from Tbilisi agrees. “If you think in terms of the classic Georgian supra, the tamada was always quite conservative. Nobody was able to move or talk between toasts without his approval. During the Soviet period, while the general premise and setting were the same, the supra and the toasts took on a stricter, more formal feel. Now, people just want to have fun and enjoy themselves. They want to eat, drink, and talk with their friends,” he explained.
There are a few interesting theories circulating about as to what led to these changes. According to Nizharadze, the supra’s cultural importance has been diminishing since the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia re-emerged as an independent state in 1991.
“The [supra] has lost its function,” he says in the article, “because the threat to Georgia’s national identity has faded, and as a result, the tradition is naturally changing.”
Economic factors also play a role in the changing attitudes towards the supra. During Soviet times, when Georgia’s economy was more stable and jobs were not as scarce, many Georgians didn’t think twice about staging extravagant feasts. But these grandiose supras of the past are harder to pull-off these days because of Georgia’s lumbering economy and the financial obligations that go along with a capitalistic system.
“The approach and spirit hasn’t changed in my opinion,” said Lexo, 39, a lawyer who works in Tbilisi. “People still want to put a lot of food on the table, they just can’t really afford it nowadays,” he added. He went on to explain that in the past, it was common to see a full roasted lamb as the centerpiece of the supra, or the host serving expensive fish, and fancy Russian chocolates. “That’s a luxury now,” he said laughing.
Like any tradition, the supra is a malleable concept and not a fossilized ritual. In fact, the basic structure of the supra can be adapted to the most informal of meals or occasions. In other words, the tradition is constantly transforming as the socioeconomic, and political realities of the country change. Georgians are simply bringing the supra’s function in line with the realities of today.