Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sacrifice and Solidarity for Spinster Aunts Worldwide

By Edith McClintock

In honor of the best cooking I've had abroad, I'm reposting a January 2011 post from my personal blog about dining at my host-family's house in Georgia while I was working on a Peace Corps Response project. It wasn't a real restaurant, of course. It was better. They did not let me touch anything or do anything. I was to sit and be served. If I tried to take my empty plate to the sink they waved me away. If I tried to open the refrigerator for water there was great consternation and drama that I would attempt such a task myself. And so I walked-in, sat, and waited for the food and drinks to arrive in front of me and then be whisked away when I was done. If I made the mistake of sitting too long, usually a matter of seconds, a new clean plate would appear before me and more food would be pulled from nooks and crannies—pastries and chocolates and homemade jams and fruits. Anything my heart desired.

I should add that I did not speak Georgian and my host-family (a Georgian family from Abkhazia) did not speak English. We lived together quite happily for three months.

My host auntie and I have a basic point of disagreement. She feels my visit to Georgia, or more particularly my stay in her sister’s home will not be a success unless I’ve gained at least 10 pounds—or kilograms if you will, since she doesn’t compute in pounds. But regardless of terminology, I feel quite the opposite. And unfortunately, at least according to my bedroom mirror, I’m on the losing end of this disagreement.

Of course the food situation’s always been bad. And I mean bad only in the sense that I’m a glutton. I like food, so of course when food—worse, good fresh food is forced on me every day there’s bound to me a problem. Namely I’m going to eat it and then I’m going to have to roll myself out of this country called Georgia. And then I’ll have to lose it–or hope for a parasite while traveling. But either way the options aren’t pleasant.

I didn’t fully understand the situation until a few weeks ago—right around the beginning of the holidays here. School was out and everyone was waking up a little later. I got up and found myself alone in an empty, dark kitchen. Exciting! So I made myself breakfast. My first. But Auntie caught me just as I was finishing. She was very apologetic that she’d overslept and I explained no worries, I’d made myself breakfast and everything was fine—all through gestures of course.

She began to make me more breakfast anyway, even when I told her again, “No, no, I’ve eaten, I’m good.” In response, she walked over patted my stomach and pointed to the stove, indicating I hadn’t gained nearly enough weight in her house, was destroying her reputation, and god forbid her sister might fire her as the in-house cook/maid/nanny. Did I really want to be responsible for a spinster aunt living in her sister’s house being fired? (Having spent the previous year living in my own sister’s house in similar servant-like conditions I was somewhat sympathetic to this situation.)

So obviously I had to eat. A second breakfast. A very large second breakfast.

But the real showdown didn’t happen until last weekend when I told the women I wasn’t extending after all. I had to have this conversation (also called the dictionary/charade game) because I was once again hearing a common refrain, which consists of, “Why isn’t Editi learning Georgian?” In the past it’s always been the grandma or aunt or maid who asked this, but this time it was my host mother (the Queen Bee). And she actually named checked the 17-year old Rotary Club dude who lived with them for a year and learned Georgian. “So why not Editi?” she asked. “Is she lazy?” Probably.

I grew suspicious and reminded them I was leaving in a few weeks and sure enough they said they thought I was staying another three months, which had admittedly been a possibility. But it turned out I had to leave, which I explained to them. At which point Auntie pointed at my stomach again and pointed at the stove. Game on.

But the truth is I’ve already lost this war. The fight’s not in me. They’ve been rolling out the high stakes this past week, the food more abundant and more delicious than ever: khinkali, khachapuri, ajapsandali, lobiani, cakes and soups, honey and butter and bread. Even an occasional glass of family wine for breakfast. And I’ve been drinking and eating and eating—for my host auntie, of course. In solidarity.

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  1. Edith - please tell me you did not put a picture of Khachipuri up on this page. Since my own travels in Georgia (and regular access to Georgian food in Russia) I have undergone major digestive changes which include not being able to consume dairy or gluten. I had just told a friend on New Year's that the worst of it was that I could not eat khachipuri anymore!!! I am going to go and cry in a corner now. Thanks for the post!

    1. Khachipuri was definitely my favorite. I don't think I could survive no dairy or gluten, although I guess I'd get very skinny.

  2. The photos alone make me hungry; the descriptions have me salivating.

    1. Me too, Patricia, wish I'd learned how to make them properly. With the dumplings, it all about how many folds you make. The more the better