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The Culinary Muse of the Caucasus

I distinctly remember the first time I had sushi: September 11, 1998. I was a college freshman, newly arrived on campus after a three-night hiking trip that the university had organized as an orientation activity. Since the dining halls weren’t open yet, the trip leader walked us into town, to a restaurant called Ichiban. When we got there, I ordered last: a California roll, like everyone else. I was nervous about eating it, but I was hungry, having spent half a week subsisting on handfuls of gorp. The roll was great. Over the next year, I went to Ichiban whenever I had the chance. Later, I switched to Sakura Express, a nearby competitor. It had a salad bar that came free with your meal, which turned me into a fan of daikon radishes.

Many people my age have a similar memory. If you grew up in America during the years in which edamame became a snack food for toddlers, my story probably sounds a little dubious. You might be thinking, Did she really not try sushi until she was eighteen (and did she just call a California roll “sushi”)? Maybe she grew up in a weird family? That’s always been my feeling toward the initiation narratives of previous generations. The decades seem off, the foods impossible. The dish my mother didn’t try until college was pizza.

Novelty is America’s tradition. In the culinary realm, this manifests as an aggressive metabolism for other nations’ foods. In January of 1968, a weekly restaurant column by Craig Claiborne, the food critic for the Times, featured “international style” restaurants. Claiborne deemed a Spanish place called El Rincon de España “a genuine find,” despite noting that the chef could be overly generous with the “fresh garlic.” Furthermore, he warned, “the restaurant doesn’t even own a peppermill.” Of Shoei, then the only Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village, he wrote, “One of the nicest assets is a pretty young Japanese woman in kimono and obi who looks and talks like one of those young women in those television commercials for flights to the Orient.”

Eventually, tapas and tempura become widely available; one no longer has to forgo a pepper mill. The April, 1977, issue of Esquire contained a three-page guide to Japanese food, entitled “Wake Up, Little Su-u-shi, Wake Up!” By that point, according to the magazine, there were almost as many Japanese restaurants in America as there were transistor radios. A kind of accelerated connoisseurship ensues. Americans of all backgrounds will eat a spicy tuna roll from the supermarket, but not without chopsticks, which we rub together, because we are lovers of sushi. It’s the thing we crave most when we’re pregnant. Before long, our stomachs start to rumble for the next big thing.

Right now, that is Georgian food. The hospitality-trend forecaster af&co. recently named it “Cuisine of the Year.” The “Dish of the Year,” the company says, is khachapuri, a term that refers to any number of Georgian cheese-filled breads. (The 2018 winners were Israeli food and rotisserie chicken.) As the trend report noted, khachapuri is photogenic. The dish has been tagged thirty-five thousand times on Instagram, where the version from the Adjara region—an oval slab topped with cheese and a runny egg—is a particular favorite. The yolk, exuding anthropomorphic cuteness, looks like the center of a winking eye. According to the Los Angeles Times, you can get khachapuri in Hollywood, at Tony Khachapüri, which just opened inside a Vietnamese restaurant called Banh Oui. (The family of one of the owners happens to come from Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south.) It is prepared, untraditionally, with garlic sauce. The crust comes dusted with everything-bagel seasoning.

There is so much to love in Georgian food: lobiani, a bean-filled flatbread; khinkali, soup dumplings shaped like E.T.’s head; nadugi, a one-hand sandwich in which salty cheese serves as both wrapper (the skin) and filling (the curds). As Darra Goldstein explains, in “The Georgian Feast,” one of Georgian food’s hallmarks is its use of walnuts, whose richness is often set off with a souring agent, like vinegar or yogurt. Cilantro is the most common herb in Georgian cooking, but tarragon is the most talismanic, flavoring everything from stews to a carbonated drink that you can order at restaurants, like a Coke. Blue fenugreek is used frequently, as are dried and crushed marigold petals, but, if Georgian food has a presiding color, it’s green. Many of the most tantalizing parts of its repertoire derive from vegetables and fruits. I’m counting the days until I can try making chrianteli, a cold soup. Goldstein’s recipe brings to mind a William Carlos Williams poem: Pit and stem two pounds of cherries. Pass through a food mill. Mix the puréed fruit with one-eighth teaspoon salt, half a pressed garlic clove, and three minced sprigs of cilantro and dill. Chill. Garnish with minced scallion.

Then, there’s Georgian wine. A couple of years ago, archeologists working at sites south of Tbilisi unearthed shards of pottery that were coated in oenological residue from 6000 B.C. This means that Georgia, probably the world’s oldest winemaking culture, has completed around eight thousand vintages. Almost every family makes wine. In the traditional method, grapes are aged with their skins in earthenware vessels called kvevri, which are buried underground. Many are left to ferment without much intervention. Georgia was making natural wines, using more than five hundred native grape varietals, before natural wine was a movement. White kvevri wines are especially distinctive. Their color is often closer to deep peach or amber, and they tend to have a highly tannic, brawny taste. If rosé is essentially red wine that’s made like white wine, the so-called orange wines at which Georgia excels can be thought of as whites that are made like reds. In 2017, Georgian exports of wine to America increased by fifty-four per cent from the previous year.

The Danish chef René Redzepi has described Georgia as home to “one of the last great undiscovered food cultures of Europe.” With a relatively plant-centric cuisine and an ancient winemaking tradition, it is well suited for the moment, in which both wine consumption and anxiety about the environment are on the rise, perhaps not unrelatedly. It’s not just the allure of Georgian gastronomy that has led to its growing visibility abroad. The Georgian National Tourism Administration is working hard to convert buzz into durable economic opportunity. In 2018, the agency brought eight hundred foreign journalists to Georgia, treating them to hospitality that, according to one participant, “borders on pathological.” On one trip, a group of American wine writers were shuttled to a vineyard in western Georgia, where a husband-and-wife winemaking team introduced them, as a writer from Vice recalled, to “a fresh and fruity rosé,” made from a little-known grape. “Somm crack juice,” one of the participants observed. (Never leave home without a glib comparison.) Goodbye, Riesling; hello, Orbeluri Ojaleshi.

Last year, more international tourists visited Georgia than ever before. To welcome the six millionth, in late December, 2016, the G.N.T.A. devised an elaborate stunt, which a promotional video on social media called “a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a dinner, one that the whole country took care of.” The tourist, Jesper Black, of the Netherlands, landed in Tbilisi and, emerging from the baggage claim, was greeted by a driver bearing a sign with his name. (If he was indeed randomly selected, it was lucky for Georgian tourism that he is a travel blogger who speaks English.) He was driven across town. The motorcade stopped in front of a big house, where a man in a suit waited on a red carpet. “Hello, Jesper,” he said. “My name is Giorgi Kvirikashvili. I am the Prime Minister of this country.” Inside, the two men enjoyed a feast composed of dishes that had been selected in a vote by the people of Georgia.

A few months later, Adweek had the story: “This Guy Was an Obscure Nation’s 6 Millionth Tourist, and He Got One Incredible Surprise.” Never mind that this land hosted the Golden Fleece; spawned wine and Stalin; and inspired Chekhov to write, during an 1888 visit, “I saw the sea in all its vastness, the Caucasian shore, mountains, mountains, mountains, eucalyptuses, tea plants, waterfalls, pigs with long pointed snouts, trees wrapped in lianas like veils, clouds spending the night on the breast of giant cliffs, dolphins, fountains of oil, subterranean fires, a fireworshippers’ temple, mountains, mountains, mountains.” America’s appetites keep their own time. Decades from now, you may recall 2019 as the year you first tried khachapuri.

In 2015, the Kurasbediani family was running an undistinguished restaurant in Tbilisi, serving traditional Georgian cuisine in a typical setting. There were about thirty-five dishes on the menu, the same thirty-five dishes that were available at every other restaurant, which are also the same thirty-five dishes cooked in every home: dumplings, skewered meats, chakapuli (a stew of meat and herbs). Business was not great. Even the Kurasbedianis—Zviadi and Maka, and their eleven children, who range in age from fifteen months to twenty-six years—were bored by the place. “It was a bit heavy,” Andria Kurasbediani, the second oldest of the siblings, told me. “Wood, wood, wood, wood.” They knew they needed to make a change.

One day, Zviadi went to the Dry Bridge flea market, where the tat and treasure of Tbilisi commingle on venders’ blankets. He was looking for vintage items to jazz up the restaurant’s table settings. A battered book caught his eye. It had a mustard-colored cover, with a drawing of a man in gloves and a toque, offering a woman a taste of soup straight from the pot. The pages were brown and crumbly around the edges, like pieces of toast. Zviadi picked up the book and started flipping through it. It contained hundreds of recipes, for everything from pickled ramps to a roast-pig roulade. Zviadi had worked in restaurants his entire life, but he had never heard of some of the dishes. He paid fifty lari (about nineteen dollars) for the book.

“Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes” was first published in 1874. Zviadi’s copy was a third edition, from 1914, with a foreword by the daughter of Barbare Jorjadze, its author. Jorjadze was born Barbare Eristavi in 1833, into a noble family of the Kakheti region, in eastern Georgia. Her mother died early. She was taught to read by her nanny, a literate peasant. Jorjadze also learned to embroider and to sew. She was a princess, technically. But her father couldn’t raise much of a dowry, and she was married off at the age of twelve to a much older military man. When a bat interrupted the ceremony, she chased it down the aisle, thinking it was part of a game. No one seems to know exactly when Jorjadze had her three children, but you can bet it wasn’t late.

The Jorjadze household was financially insecure and peripatetic. Barbare spent much of her time circuiting the provinces, trying to help her feckless husband and then her hapless son salvage catastrophic careers. She was shaky on the finer points of composition—she depended on her older brother, who had been formally educated, to punctuate her texts—but she had a drive to communicate, to enter the public arena at a time when women, as she once wrote, were told, “You must always keep silent; you must not raise your eyes at anybody, you must not go anywhere, you must block your ears, close your eyes, and sit back.” Jorjadze participated in debates about the modernization of the Georgian language, wrote popular plays and poems, and lobbied for educational reforms. She died in 1895, collapsing as she stepped into a phaeton on yet another filial rescue mission. “She was almost the first woman who took up the pen and entered the terrain of literature,” her obituary in a Tbilisi paper read. She is often called Georgia’s first feminist. She was the nation’s Mary Wollstonecraft, but also its Mrs. Beeton—a thick-browed matron in sausage curls and a lace chikhti-kopi headpiece, who forged herself into an intellectual but is best remembered for a kitchen manual.

When Zviadi got home from the flea market, he showed his purchase to the family. It seemed like a godsend—an exhaustive culinary time capsule from an era when recipes were passed down orally and hardly ever recorded. When they were transcribed, it was usually by foreign travellers. The compendium was especially valuable because, under Soviet rule from 1921 to 1991, many of the nation’s cultural traditions, including gastronomic ones, were suppressed. Soviet authorities, for instance, permitted the cultivation of only four types of grapes and the manufacture of only four types of cheese, despite the existence of more than sixty regional varieties, some of which permanently disappeared. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, food was often scarce and fuel shortages made cooking difficult. One woman who grew up in Tbilisi during the nineties recalled to me many meals of sugared pasta, with sugared bread for dessert.

Jorjadze’s book was a trove of prelapsarian flavors and practical knowledge. It even included recipes for foreign dishes, such as blancmange. This suggested a cosmopolitan legacy that had been obscured during the Soviet era and then overlooked during the post-Soviet revival of traditional fare. Wendell Steavenson has written that, in Georgia, “kitchen tenet is preserved as national dogma.” The book lent legitimacy to the idea that culinary innovation was a return to form rather than a betrayal of the country’s heritage. The Kurasbedianis decided to renovate the business and dedicate it to Barbare Jorjadze. “For everyone, it was ‘click,’ ” Andria Kurasbediani recalled. He and his family would cook their way through all eight hundred and seven of her recipes and call the place Barbarestan—a page-to-plate restaurant.

Barbarestan opened in late 2015. It is housed on the basement and ground floors of a former butcher shop. From the moment you walk through the door, it’s apparent that you’ve entered Jorjadze’s domain. The tables are laid with supra cloths, taper candles, gorgeous ceramics in grandmotherly motifs and modern shapes. I wanted to go shopping in there. Antique mirrors hang in clusters on walls of exposed brick. In a dining nook, a portrait of Jorjadze presides over a little shrine: candelabra, reading glasses, red pen with nib. “We wanted her to have everything she needed,” Andria said.

One night this past January, I sat down with Andria for dinner. It was still Christmastime in Georgia, where more than eighty per cent of the population belongs to the Georgian Orthodox Church. We were joined by Lasha Kavtaradze, a young journalist who was helping me navigate the country, and a twentysomething Kurasbediani cousin named Nikolas. Choral music washed over the room. Andria was wearing a three-piece suit, accented by a scarlet pin that glowed like a pomegranate seed. Nikolas, with a shaved head and a slim-fitting turtleneck of black wool, was as sleek as a Siamese cat.

We started with a communal platter of five appetizers: cottage cheese with mint, pickled bladdernut, beet pkhali (a vegetable pâté made with walnuts), caramelized onions, and spiced tomatoes. Andria handled the wooden cutting board as though it were a precious violin. It turned out that there is a place in the Netherlands called the International Butler Academy, and he had just graduated from it.

“I saw that movie ‘The Butler,’ with Forest Whitaker, and I thought, Wow, that’s what I want,” he recalled. “I can officially say they’re the best in teaching what’s called ‘royal service.’ ” (I peeked online at the curriculum, which includes lessons on “how and when to prepare the morning-tray and deliver it to your employer” and, intriguingly, “how to deal with the task of having to ask a guest to leave the house.”)

The Kurasbedianis were about a hundred and eighty recipes into “Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes.” Giorgi Sarajishvili, the restaurant’s chef, has cooked everything everywhere: Japanese in Moscow, Italian in Amsterdam. He took a journeyman’s approach to Jorjadze, interpreting her within loose parameters. He might roast a lamb flank, for instance, where Jorjadze suggested boiling it. For a root soup, she called for only the stems of several plants—white beets, wild garlic, cilantro, and parsley—but Sarajishvili found the taste “a bit dead.” He added the plants’ leaves, which made the soup taste brighter and turned it Easter-basket-grass green, optimizing it for Instagram. “In terms of ingredients, I don’t go beyond what’s in the book,” he said.

The plates kept coming. There was dambal khacho, a bouncy Georgian fondue; a duck patty with topographical grooves, served with plum sauce; many breads and wines. Plenitude is important in Georgia, where feasting and toasting are cherished, heavily choreographed rites. The meal felt like a food version of one of those movie montages where spinning newspapers keep stacking up on top of one another.

The Kurasbedianis had suddenly become the proprietors of what the blog Georgia Starts Here—written by Georgians in English, for the international tourists flocking to Tbilisi on foodie pilgrimages—identified as Tbilisi’s “top fanciest restaurant.” Barbarestan’s clientele is about sixty per cent tourists. The most expensive dishes on the menu cost forty-seven lari (about eighteen dollars), yet the average monthly income in Georgia just surpasses a thousand lari (about four hundred dollars). At one point, Andria got up to greet a woman with a practical haircut and a full-length fur coat. She was famous, I learned, for having dominated a popular Georgian quiz show.

“She won the diamond owl!” someone said.

To our left was an important Georgian man. A waiter approached his table and presented a handsome box that the Kurasbedianis had made to house their copy of “Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes.” The waiter delivered a spiel about Jorjadze to the man and his guests, two English-speaking businessmen. “She was a noblewoman,” the man said.

At our table, the parade of main courses concluded with a salmon mille-feuille dish to change your mind about salmon mille-feuille dishes. Sarajishvili had concocted it from Jorjadze’s recipes for dough (No. 505), poached fish (No. 278), and cream cheese (No. 592). Later, I tracked down the neighboring diner, a businessman named Irakli Rukhadze. In an e-mail, he explained Barbarestan’s appeal: “The result was a very Georgian restaurant with unusual and new (for us) dishes. Add to this a very nice ambience, good service, and a wine cellar that had no rival at the time of opening and you have a winning formula for Georgians who wanted something new. I was one of such Georgians.”

Even the most venerable cuisines are not static. As Americans look to Georgia for culinary inspiration, Georgians are looking to Barbare Jorjadze. More than a hundred and twenty years after her death, she has become the muse of a creative flourishing. Barbarestan is the only restaurant devoted solely to her memory, but chefs all over Tbilisi now cite her as a pioneer. “She was so advanced for the time,” Tekuna Gachechiladze, who hosts a popular cooking show, told me. We were sitting in Khasheria, her tripe-soup (khashi) dispensary, just across from the sulfur baths of the old town. “It’s a hangover place,” she said. “If people survive the heat at the baths, then they’re coming and eating the tripe soup.”

Gachechiladze, who owns three other restaurants in Tbilisi, is regarded as “the queen of Georgian fusion,” a title that she rejects. “Traditional Georgian cuisine was always open,” she said. The daughter of a businessman and an artist “who never cooked in her life,” Gachechiladze left Georgia in 1997 to study psychology in Heidelberg, then moved to New York in 2003, where she abruptly changed course. Rather than “listening to the sexual problems of Manhattan high society,” she decided that she wanted to enroll at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. Her father was furious. “At home, we had a woman who cooked for us,” she recalled. “And my father said, ‘If you really want to learn how to cook, she will teach you how to make khachapuri.’ ” He relented, and in 2006 Gachechiladze became the executive chef at L’Express, Tbilisi’s first French bistro. “Eventually, I started to think about Georgian food,” she said. At Cafe Littera, which opened in 2015, she substituted mussels for lamb in a chakapuli stew. She molded elarji—cornmeal mixed with sulguni cheese—into fried balls, as though it were mozzarella. Controversially, she made a sauce for the elarji that used almonds in place of walnuts.

“At the beginning, people hated me for this,” she said. “One day, I was catering a party for a politician, and the women took off their aprons and left.” Faced with her crew’s insurrection, Gachechiladze almost gave up on the gig. “But the minister said, ‘I will close your restaurant if you don’t do those fucking elarji balls.’ So I did them. And then, five years later, I went to a Georgian restaurant in Ukraine and what are they serving? My elarji balls.”

The movement to revitalize Georgian food is distinctly, if accidentally, feminine. One reason is that, during the post-Soviet era of economic instability, women were more likely than men to seek education and employment abroad. The nature of their migration also differed: according to a European Union report, female Georgian émigrés were often young and well educated, and gravitated toward Western Europe and America, while male émigrés were older and less educated, and generally sought work in Russia and its former states. (Salomé Zourabichvili, who was inaugurated as Georgia’s first female President a few weeks after my visit, was born in Paris to Georgian parents and served as a French diplomat before entering Georgian politics.) Now the economy is improving and émigrés are coming home, with eclectic tastes and a sense of possibility. “I think Georgian women really saved this country,” the chef Meriko Gubeladze told me. She spent five years working at La Palapa, in the East Village, before returning to Tbilisi to open Shavi Lomi, a beloved modern Georgian restaurant where she once stuffed lavash bread with cheese and called it a “khachapurito.”

Many of the women I met in Tbilisi’s food world spoke of Jorjadze as though she were standing in their kitchens, importuning them to use newspaper to gauge the freshness of meat. (If the paper comes off wet, Jorjadze says, the meat is past its prime.) They called her Barbare. They could even get a little exasperated with her propensity for random measurements (a glass of sugar) and airy asides (if you have nothing for your dinner, just grab a ham from the cellar). They took this less as a nineteenth-century thing than as a Barbare thing, the cost of doing business with a spirited character. “You can’t really follow her recipes literally, but she gives you inspiration,” Gubeladze said.

One morning, I had coffee with a poet, writer, and linguist named Diana Anthimiadou. In “Personal Culinary,” a book about food and memory, she writes:

On my wedding day, I was given many colorful and glossy cookery books. They were all quality publications but none of them was any good. Cookery books should awaken our taste buds, make us smell the aroma of dishes, and develop a desire to find out more. But these books weren’t like that. They were exactly like the formulaic math textbooks of school. Recipes are one reason why I love people. One such person was a writer called Barbare Jorjadze who lived in nineteenth-century Georgia. That lady is my muse.

Anthimiadou is working on a biographical novel about Jorjadze. In 1861, Jorjadze publicly stood up to Ilia Chavchavadze, a leading intellectual of the day, who wished, among other things, to drop five obsolete letters from the Georgian alphabet. The subject was explosive, pitting conservative “fathers” against modernizing “sons,” in what is still referred to in Georgia as “the debate of generations.” Chavchavadze wanted to make the language more vernacular. Jorjadze—the sole woman to claim a foothold in the conversation—saw this as a deletion of culture, particularly harmful during an era of Russian occupation. She also worried about the change from a pedagogical standpoint. Chavchavadze prevailed, and, for many years, Jorjadze lingered in the Georgian consciousness as a tutting bourgeois reactionary. Young Georgian women today are less interested in her arguments than in the fact that she had the courage to make them. “She’s the type of woman who doesn’t know what the result will be, but she still gives it a try,” Anthimiadou said.

In 2017, the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia opened a reading room dedicated to Jorjadze. Supported by the United Nations and the Swedish government, it provides access, mostly digital, to information about gender equality. Lela Gaprindashvili, a professor of social and political studies at Tbilisi State University, and one of Georgia’s preëminent feminists, met me there one afternoon. We sat at a wooden table near a mural of Jorjadze, who was portrayed in her usual headpiece, watering a tree with rivulets of newspaper that poured out of a clay ewer.

Gaprindashvili hesitated to classify Jorjadze as Georgia’s first feminist. “I’m very careful using that term, because let’s imagine, if she were alive nowadays, would she call herself a feminist?” she said. “The notion of feminism entered Georgian intellectual and political circles only in the beginning of the twentieth century, in parallel with the suffrage movement in Europe.”

In 1918, after the revolution in Russia, Georgia became independent. The country’s constitution enshrined women’s right to vote and to hold elected office. Many of Georgia’s early feminists were also Georgian nationalists; that year, five women were elected to Georgia’s first parliament. Then, in 1921, the Red Army invaded and reoccupied the country. Georgian feminism became a collateral casualty. “Three of the five female M.P.s were shot by the Bolsheviks,” Gaprindashvili said. (Stalin killed thousands of his countrymen but is still admired by some Georgians for his role in industrializing the region and defeating Nazi Germany.)

“You were expected to believe, and also to make others believe, that the history of Georgia started in 1921,” Gaprindashvili said. Still, under the Soviet regime, women could get educations and hold decent jobs. “The system of quotas created somewhat emancipating surroundings for women,” Gaprindashvili said. In the nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union dissolved, Georgian women sought to establish their own feminist lineage, often proudly citing Queen Tamara, who ruled Georgia from 1184 to 1213. But more recent history was a void. “Here was the main provocative question for me to research in the nineties,” Gaprindashvili recalled. “If we had women in the twelfth century, where are all the women from, for example, the nineteenth century?”

Gaprindashvili kept coming across Jorjadze’s name in the archives. She remembered that her grandparents had had a first edition of “Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes”: it had been a wedding gift from her grandfather to her grandmother, cheaper than a coat. “When you read her, it’s just so obvious that this person is thirsty to write something,” she said. “She doesn’t want to die in these obscure, claustrophobic family circumstances.”

I asked Gaprindashvili if she had a sense of why Jorjadze meant so much to modern Georgian women. “One of the reasons why she has been resurrected as the object of interest is that nowadays it’s very common to believe that the idea of equality was transferred from the West to Georgia in post-Soviet times,” she answered. “The existence of Barbare Jorjadze and all the other women and their work proves that this idea of equality is part of the Georgian national identity.” Before we said goodbye, she told me that her favorite Jorjadze recipe was for vodka infused with rose petals.

I had spent the better part of a week eating Jorjadze’s food, listening to people commune with her, trying to understand why a forgotten cookbook author had become a vivid presence in their lives, but, to be honest, I couldn’t get a handle on her. Her recipes seemed pretty basic, and not very clear. “If you give one of her recipes to ten different chefs, you will get ten different dishes,” Tamara Mirianashvili, a food blogger, said. None of Jorjadze’s works have been translated into English, so I was relying on secondhand information, which was mangled by the passage of well over a century. I could find only one physical description of her, written in 1861, by a poet friend of her brother’s:

Whenever I read Barbare Jorjadze’s poems, I was imagining her differently; in my mind, she was short, thin, nimble, energetic, agitated while writing, and imagine my astonishment when I entered her room and I saw a full-bodied, good-looking young woman, sitting with her legs crossed and writing the poem on the paper that was lying on her legs. . . . That’s when I realized she could only write in the old fashion, putting the paper on her lap.

This was a confusing passage—the poet’s final impression of Jorjadze didn’t seem all that different from his initial misperception. My mental picture of her dissolved into his adjective soup. The final detail was poignant—here was Barbare, trying to make it big in Tbilisi, and basically sequestered in a room, writing sidesaddle—but it only rendered her more remote. The few extant photographs of her were maddening. I looked into her eyes, straining to see some spark of avidity, of transgression, and got back a heavy stare.

I decided to go to Kistauri, the Eristavi family seat, where a museum honors her older brother, the poet and playwright Raphael Eristavi. Lasha Kavtaradze, the journalist, and I took a taxi from Tbilisi. The sun was bright and the sky was a spectrum of blue, with pastel lower ranges deepening into a blueberry-colored ceiling. We sped along the Kakheti Highway, climbing into the foothills of the Gombori Pass. In the distance, snowcapped peaks undulated like a strip of rickrack. The Caucasus!

At a bend in the road, a group of men approached the car. They were wearing masks. One of them, holding a big plastic bottle, came toward us with an outstretched arm. I would have been terrified had I not already read about berikaoba, a kind of improvised masquerade that is included on Georgia’s registry of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and by which the men, they did not hesitate to say, were hoping to collect enough money to get very drunk.

The Raphael Eristavi House Museum lies at the end of Kistauri’s main road. A man walked by, pushing a wheelbarrow. There was woodsmoke on the wind. A bench out front had sprouted a crop of mushrooms. Nana Ovechkina, the only employee there that day, was waiting for us. The house is a long bungalow, with rooms arranged like boxcars. Ovechkina switched on the lights. A number of pictures of castles were affixed to the wall in the first room. Ovechkina walked us through them PowerPoint style, tapping each panel with a white pointer and reading the accompanying caption aloud. We learned about Raphael Eristavi’s religious education; his five daughters; his bad eyes; his stint, from 1857 to 1867, as the governor of the Samegrelo region; the marriage of one of his daughters to a Romanov; his vaudeville career; his birthday presents; his romantic poems about “love and black eyes and the sea.” We saw a pair of finger blades that Eristavi had used to thresh grain. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ask some questions about Barbare Jorjadze.

“We will talk about Barbare Jorjadze when we get to the Barbare Jorjadze room,” Ovechkina said.

I was beginning to feel that Eristavi undeservedly overshadowed his sister in museography as he had in life, but apparently the people of Georgia adored him. In 1895, the country threw a jubilee to celebrate his fortieth year as a poet. (Stalin, who was a teen-ager, read an original poem.) When he died, in 1901, Ovechkina told us, “people were so touched that they covered the whole road to Kistauri with leaves so his dead body didn’t touch the ground.”

At last, we reached the final room of the museum. “There was another writer in the family, Barbare Jorjadze,” Ovechkina said. It was cold; I could see her breath as she talked. White curtains blocked the sun. Ovechkina tapped the panels with her pointer. Barbare was born, Barbare married, Barbare wrote, Barbare died. Near a lurid oil painting illustrating her demise, a glass display case held a few artifacts: an embroidered purse; her chikhti-kopi, broken down into lace veil and black arc.

At the end of the tour, Ovechkina invited us into her office, a back room with a wood-burning stove. She opened a drawer and got out a notebook—yellowed pages, smudged blue ink. It had belonged to one of Barbare Jorjadze’s descendants, who, in the nineteen-sixties, took it upon herself to copy out Jorjadze’s letters. Ovechkina read one of the letters to us, explaining that Barbare was giving instructions to Raphael on caring for his sick daughter:

Raphael, do this for Taso:

Chop rhubarb to the size of coffee beans and roast it like coffee beans. Take a tablespoon of rhubarb and two tablespoons of candy, and add two glasses of water and boil it until it reduces to the amount of a cup. Cool it down and let her drink three tablespoons in a day, in the morning, in the evening, and at noon. Instead of water tell her to drink what is written below:

Cinnamon

Cloves

Cardamom

White wax

Take it with the same proportions and sugar. Boil it in red wine, and whenever she feels thirsty, let her drink. If she does not want wine, boil it in water. Tell her to boil, it will do her good.

Jorjadze was starting to come alive. She was an admirably direct correspondent, a practical magician who could make elixirs and metaphors out of stalks of rhubarb. I asked Ovechkina what she thought of her.

“Barbare was vazhkatsuri,” Ovechkina replied, pumping a fist.

The word she used, Kavtaradze explained, was an unusual choice. A compound of the Georgian words for “boy” and “man,” it means “courageous.”

On my last morning in Tbilisi, I walked up to the sixth floor of a Soviet-era apartment block. I had begged Tamara Mirianashvili, the food blogger, to have me over for a cooking session. She had decided that we would attempt recipe No. 20 in her edition of “Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes,” mostly because she already had the ingredients or could buy them at the corner store. The apartment was small and neat. There were cartoon stickers on the refrigerator; a chichilaki, a Christmas tree made from dried hazelnut branches, sat on top of a file cabinet. Mirianashvili had already set up the mise en place: honey, raisins, almonds, butter, a bowl of fruit.

“Today, we are making quince dolmas,” she said. The dish, she explained, was something of a mystery, given that dolmas usually consist of a vegetable thing stuffed with a meat thing. She found Jorjadze’s use of the word a little odd.

“Do you think it’s a dessert?” I asked.

“She’s very fond of desserts,” Mirianashvili said.

“What comes after it in the book?”

“Sheep dolmas,” she said. “It’s a meat section, actually.”

First, we had to peel the quinces and slice them. A lot of them were mealy. We tossed the hopeless segments in the trash and the decent ones into a mixing bowl. Next, Mirianashvili dumped the quinces into a pot and put it on the stove. Barbare—I was calling her that now—wanted us to pour in a glass of water. Mirianashvili opted for a standard drinking glass, the kind with fluting at the base and a wide band near the rim.

“I’m just going to do half,” she said, “since we don’t have that much fruit.”

Next, the butter went in. Honey followed, then salt. Mirianashvili turned the gas low. We figured that most of the water needed to evaporate for the dish to be edible, so we let the mixture simmer for about fifteen minutes. Then we threw in the raisins and the almonds, leaving them whole. We weren’t really sure about that, but Barbare hadn’t said anything about slivering them.

“Hmmm,” Mirianashvili said, lifting up the lid to peek into the pot. The quinces were starting to turn golden, as Barbare had promised they would.

“I suppose you eat this warm,” Mirianashvili said. “I’m just presuming that.”

She took a wooden spoon and shovelled the concoction onto turquoise melamine plates. It looked like a nut cluster, pre-clustering.

“Now let’s taste it!” she said.

The dish was medicinal but luscious, a hot toddy you could eat with a fork. We wondered if you were supposed to cut a hole in the quinces and stuff them. “I might try that tomorrow,” Mirianashvili said. We had no idea if our result was anything like what Barbare had intended, but we enjoyed what we had made. It was the product of our imaginations, a plateful of guesswork. Barbare Jorjadze’s book is really about female creativity. We were cooking free. ♦

ViaNewYorker