Fifty-nine Gia Gokieli remembers taking his backpack in the early 1990s to go foraging for bread for his wife and three young daughters. “This would sometimes take half a day,” Gokieli, a translator and philologist, recollects. He uses the term “hunting for bread” to emphasize the unpredictability of the outcome.
The verb Georgians generally use to describe such pursuits -- შოვნა (shovna) – reflects the stakes. It means both to find and to acquire, and implies both effort and luck.
Good fortune was, indeed, necessary. Only family and friends made hoarding possible. If you found eggs one day, it was considered kind to spread the word among your network. If you were lucky enough to have a personal contact whom you trusted at the market or in a village, this could be key to getting food.
Bread, a mainstay of Georgian meals, often served as a currency in these transactions. In outdoor bazaars, people traded both edible and non-edible items for bread. Those who managed to find sizeable amounts of bread sometimes stored it in freezers (when working), like cash in a bank account.
Gokieli remembers in the late ‘80s exchanging 30 dried loaves of bread -- an unusual windfall from a private bakery -- for eggs from the village of Manglisi, which, like other Georgian villages, needed bread to feed farm animals.
For greens, he would take the largest car available for a group expedition to the town of Marneuli,an agricultural hub 24 kilometers from Tbilisi. At the time, gas shortages meant that ordinary Georgians rarely used cars, except for important occasions.
Other urban dwellers walked to nearby forests and villages to pick fruit, mushrooms or edible greens. Some such sites existed on a plateau on the outskirts of Tbilisi that today is a crowded residential district.
“[A]fter these expeditions [to the plateau], we would come back and, together with a few of the neighbors, dine together in the boiler room of our apartment block [for the heat and space], each bringing along something little to share,”recalls painter Dato Gegechkori, who went on the treks as a nine-year-old.
Getting meat, though, was more of a challenge. In 1993, a kilogram could cost quadruple an average monthly salary, or about $10 in Georgia’s new currency, the kuponi (coupon), Chatwin recorded. Instead, Gokieli recalls, some vendors would simply grind up the head of a calf, which could be purchased relatively cheaply along with its tongue and brains.