The Toast of Georgia
"ARE YOU HERE FOR BUSINESS?" asked the woman sitting next to me. Our plane was beginning its descent into Tbilisi, capital of the tiny republic of Georgia.
"No," I said returning my tray table to the upright position. "For dinner."
I couldn't believe it, either. I had just traveled nearly 6,000 miles to eat, actually to attend a birthday party featuring one of Tbilisi's most famous toastmasters, or tamadas, as Georgians call them. Tamadas play a key role in the country's culinary culture, and to be invited to dine with one of the biggest is a rare honor.
A friend who made the arrangements guaranteed I'd have the time of my life. After a dozen trips to Georgia, I'm hooked on the food and wine. This was a chance to enjoy plenty of both, but first I would have to get there.
Tense relations between Georgia and Russia had recently turned into a front-page crisis. In response to the arrest of four alleged Russian spies, Aeroflot, Russia's international airline, abruptly canceled all flights to Tbilisi, which meant I'd have to hurry to find other tickets if I was going make the party. It wasn't easy or cheap, but here I was, two days before the big night.
Below, mountain slopes gave way to river valleys, then to farms and vineyards, where harvest season was in full swing. On its final approach, the plane banked past a gigantic statue of Mother Georgia, symbol of the nation's legendary spirit. High on a pine-covered hill above Tbilisi, the 65-foot woman holds a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. Centuries of invasions and foreign occupation have taught Georgians that the best defense is treating all outsiders as guests, feeding them and flattering them with toasts until everyone gets along like old friends.
My plan, if that's the right word in a place that seems to operate more or less on impulse, was to spend the week learning my way around the Georgian table and finding out how a skilled tamada can bring out the party animal in anyone. On a visit two years ago, President Bush, under the influence of Georgian food, music and high-concept schmoozing, stayed up celebrating hours past his bedtime.
"I learned firsthand what it means to be fed by a Georgian," said Bush right before hitting the dance floor. Georgians were so impressed that they renamed the road to the airport George W. Bush Highway.
I had been to Georgia before, but never just to have a good time, though deconstructing the complexities of a multi-course Georgian meal could involve a certain amount of work.
"I hope you're ready," said Nugzar Ruhadze, a friend and local TV personality who was picking me up at the airport. Like many other Georgian men, Ruhadze is a self-professed tamada.
Being a tamada, he said, isn't something that can be taught. It's a gift. You're either born with the necessary talents, or you're not. And apparently you don't have to be born in Georgia to play the part. With more young Georgians learning English and more Americans showing up in Georgia, the time had come, Ruhadze believed, for an American tamada. But not just any American. The right candidate would have to be talkative, fun-loving and free the following Wednesday night for dinner at his house. "You'd be good at it," he said. No, I wouldn't. I've got a Georgian vocabulary of six words. There was no way I could do it.
"Yes, you can," he insisted. "I'll translate."