In 19th century Georgia, Princess Barbare Jorjadze grew up to be the country’s first feminist. But until recently she’s been best remembered for another accomplishment – her cookbook.
Jorjadze’s book, Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes, has long been a prized household possession. While its more elaborate recipes have been forgotten, the book’s simpler dishes have retained currency through nearly 150 years of cataclysmic changes. Two centuries, two world wars, and two empires (Tsarist and Soviet) later, Georgians still make a holiday dish of satsivi, with turkey in a walnut puree-thickened gravy, pretty much the way Jorjadze instructed in 1874.
“Put half a pound of crushed walnuts in the stock. Add two diced onions and two cloves of finely chopped garlic, coriander and other herbs, and bring to boil.”
Jorjadze suggested boiling and then broiling the turkey to soften the meat. Scrawny and petite compared to their giant American cousins, Georgian turkeys don’t tend to respond well to direct roasting.
Georgian chefs now increasingly consult Jorjadze’s book for forgotten flavors, many of them obliterated by the Soviet Union’s homogenizing influence. “Diversity and extravagance were frowned upon in the Soviet [Union],” says Tekuna Gachechiladze, a prominent Georgian chef and restaurateur. “Daily cooking was reduced to humdrum things like fried, minced meat patties and mashed potatoes, while proper Georgian meals like satsivi were served only on holidays.”
Today, Georgia is having something of a gastronomic renaissance, with restaurateurs improvising beyond staples like walnut paste-stuffed veggies and shashlik. The trend is largely toward fusion and innovation, but it is also about putting history on the menu.
Gachechiladze is at the forefront of this phenomenon. Known as the queen of Georgian fusion cuisine, Gachechiladze considers Jorjadze the founding mother of this style of cooking.
In her book, Jorjadze offers recipes not for just Georgian, but also European, Middle Eastern and Russian specialties. She shares tips for making béchamel and tkemali, classic French and Georgian sauces, respectively. A recipe for blancmange, a sweet French milk pudding, comes a few pages after its Georgian counterpart, pelamushi, made with boiled grape juice.
“She wanted Georgians to keep an open mind about what’s going on food-wise around the world, to preserve the tradition, but also to be receptive to new ideas,” says Gachechiladze.
A soup made with the Asian fruit quince, inspired by Jorjdaze’s cookbook, is on the menu of Gachechildze’s Littera, a handsome restaurant ensconced in an atmospheric garden of a 1900s mansion in Tbilisi. Barbarestan, another gourmet restaurant in the city, offers a cuisine based almost entirely on Jorjadze’s recipes, served in a setting evocative of her era of elites and their dinner parties.
Jorjadze was born in 1833, when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire and recovering from centuries of wars. Home-schooling was the best bet for education for women then, even for the high-born. Jorjadze was taught to read and write by her peasant nanny – a fact that she would later emphasize in her writings about women’s role in the Georgian society: “Women had been the custodians of knowledge and champions of literacy when men held to their weapons and fought to defend the homeland.”
A daughter of Prince Davit Eristavi, Jorjadze was married off at the age of 12, an experience she would recall with bitterness. “I was so young at my wedding that I thought it was some sort of game,” she later told a younger writer, Mariam Demuria, who recalled it in a letter published in a local newspaper. When a bat flew into the church, Jorjadze nearly went chasing after it, interrupting the ceremony.
In her writings, she barely mentions her husband, Zakaria Jorjadze, an obscure military officer and spendthrift. But as evidenced by her correspondence with her friends, she was very close to her brother Rapiel Eristavi, a poet, historian and prominent member of Georgian literati circle. Jorjadze became the first woman to force her way into this snobbish circle of men, by publishing her writings in the popular literary magazine Tsiskari, and asserting a place for herself as poet, playwright and essayist.
Jorjadze used both prose and verse to call for respect and equality for women. In a letter published in Kvali magazine in 1893, “A Few Words to the Attention of Young Men,” she offered a caustic response to men criticizing women for their supposed preoccupation with soiree and gossip.
“From a very young age, we are told, ‘since god made you a woman, you must sit silently, look at nobody, go nowhere, shut your ears and your eyes, and just sit there. Education and learning of languages is none of your concern.’… Now you tell me, if this creature, kept uneducated and confined, ends up being less than perfect, who is to blame?” Jorjadze wrote in her j’accuse, now regarded by gender historians as the nation’s first feminist manifesto.
She went on to call on men to “abandon pride and envy, and let your sisters have an equal access to education and tutoring … and the new generation of women will spare no labor and energy to contribute their share to progress.”
Her experience as a self-made intellectual is believed to have driven Jorjadze to push for universal education. She even put together a Georgian language children’s primer.
Lasha Bakradze, the director of the Georgian Literature Museum, is convinced that Jorjadze’s cookbook was a patriotic endeavor, a product of her zeal to enlighten. “Cookery and household management books were then fashionable in England, and the trend was picked up in Russia,” says Bakradze. “Jorjadze must have believed that Georgia, just as any self-respecting nation, should have its own guidebook on cooking and running the household.”
Researchers believe that Jorjadze’s cookbook was influenced by two best-sellers: the English writer Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management and her Russian counterpart Elena Molokhovets’ Gift to Young Housewives. Jorjadze’s book was also snapped up by the thousands.
In what was then de rigueur for the genre, Jorjardze offered not just cooking advice, but also tips on dining etiquette, duly gender-divided. “The man of the house offers wine to the guests, the lady of the house offers fruit, coffee and tea,” she wrote. She also provided some housekeeping how-tos, tips for exterminating flies, ants and mice, and removing stain from cloth.
A doting mother of three, Jorjadze saw motherhood and family as ultimately the responsibility of women – a view shared by most Georgians to this day. Perhaps it’s no surprise that her non-culinary oeuvre was left to gather dust in libraries. And so, a writer who pushed hard for women to have a life beyond the kitchen came to be remembered only for her prowess in the kitchen.
Gender researcher Tamta Melashvili blames this on sexism in history studies. “At the end of the day, men made decisions on what bits of history should be highlighted and what is best left sitting on the library shelves,” she says.
In recent years, however, gender researchers have promoted Jorjadze as an unsung hero. She took to the pen not just to advise on the perfect khachapuri, a Georgian cheese pie, but also to call for a greater public role for women.
This year, the Georgian National Library, which has original copies of her cookbook, opened a reading room named after Jorjadze. The room has become the gathering place for discussing Georgian women who made history. “We call this the first feminist reading room in Georgia,” says Melashvili.
The room’s murals depict Jorjadze and a generation of female writers, activists and politicians whom she paved the way for. She is portrayed as a grand dame draped in traditional Georgian attire. Words pour out of a pitcher in her hands, as she looks on at activists and researchers gathered in the room.
Jorjadze’s ability to effectively combine work, activism and domesticity offers important lessons for modern-day Georgian women, who also grapple with the same issues, says Lela Gaprindashvili, a professor of philosophy at Tbilisi State University and the chair of a nonprofit called Women’s Initiative for Equality.
“We … need to be informed by our own history of emancipation,” she says. “There are no simple, quick solutions to the issues women face today. But it is important for us to study and remember the women, who, like Jorjadze, were the first to make a difference, to propose a recipe.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia.