Like many chefs and food writers, Olia Hercules is concerned about where her ingredients come from. More than just selectiveness when it comes to produce, that means using her cookbooks to document the stories of the people behind the food. In the Caucasus, which she visited to retrace a journey she originally took with her family as a child, it was women who ran the show — and who were overlooked. Travelling with photographer Elena Heatherwick, both single mothers at the time, they were drawn to the strong female figures they encountered in rural parts of the Caucasus. Not only responsible for feeding households, these modern matriarchs cultivate their local communities by running guesthouses and turning their artisanal food knowledge into businesses. Kaukasis The Cookbook: A culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan & beyond is as much dedicated to these women as to the food of the region. In this excerpt of her book, Hercules explores the Georgian phenomena of dedakatsi, or the “mother-man”.
My whole life I have been fascinated and even slightly obsessed with strong women. I wouldn’t be able to describe what life was like pre-1939, extremely tough I imagine, but it seems to me that World War II, coupled with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, has produced a generation of women that could move mountains.
When somebody told me the meaning of the word dedakatsi in Georgia, which literally translates as “mother-man”, it was almost an epiphany.
This is not feminism in the way we all strive to achieve in the West, but altogether a different notion
My grandfather Viktor, who escaped concentration camps and was imprisoned for a couple of years by the Soviets, was a quiet man. Gentle by nature, he was forced to retreat further into a withdrawn and subdued state following what happened to him in the 1930s and 40s. I remember seeing him quietly sitting on his chair in the kitchen when we visited, while my grandmother Lusia, a formidable force with the straightest back I’ve ever seen, was running around cooking, taking care of the farm animals and looking after their six children. Vitechka, with his James Dean golden locks and piercing blue eyes would just be having a toke on his filterless Prima cigarette, sipping on a glass of homemade wine if my grandmother felt benevolent enough that day to let him. He never talked about what happened to him during the war; the trauma of it must have been too great. And Lusia was a true matriarch; not in the sense recognised by society as such, but she really was.
And this was a familiar pattern that I have come across throughout Georgia. Of course, there have been tons of incredibly talented, strong and hard-working men that I’ve met. But it struck me how many women were so much like Lusia, if more self-sacrificial, and not all of them were my grandmother’s generation or even near. This is not feminism in the way that we all strive to achieve in the West, but altogether a different notion. This is women doing everything, so not exactly the equality that feminism represents. But it’s no less admirable.
Visiting the incredible Georgian vineyards, I’ve experienced the remarkable achievements of the relatively recent pioneers of organic winemaking, the men that take pride and glory in producing their natural, ancient qvevri wines. They are saving one of the oldest traditions known to man, so to me they might as well be saving the world. But what people don’t talk about as much are the women behind these men. I have witnessed wives and 87-year-old mothers staying up until 1am, cooking and serving, so that their husbands and sons could entertain potential wine ex-porters or food and drink writers. And those women also often work the vineyards, have other jobs besides and raise children. They are superwomen. In no way am I passing judgement, but all the work they do at the vineyards and beyond should be recognised and highly respected. And the dedakatsi role is not exclusive to the winemaking world – I have seen it fulfilled in many houses and not just in Georgia.