Friday, June 16, 2006

Paradox of Choice

Tonight, I'm going to Mtskheta for khinkali. The former being a town 20 minutes outside of Tbilisi and the ancient capital of Georgia (Tbilisi is the johnny-come-lately capital, popping up in the 5th century); the latter a delicious meat-dumpling type concoction that has the curious property of becoming increasingly addictive the more you eat of it, such that Georgians of my acquaintance have been known to non-ironically equate the khinkali dumpling to life itself. Last Sunday my friend took me with her to her mother's house and we all rolled our sleeves up and slapped on our aprons and the ladies taught me how to make a proper khinkali, so watch out America!

There's khinkali in Tbilisi, of course, but it's better in Mtskheta, although not as good as up in Pasanauri. Something about the water, they say. The lobio, the beans, are really primo in Mtskheta, but if you want smoked pork you will simply have to spend the 8 hours to get yourself up to Racha. And if you crave the sweet, challah-like nazuki bread, then I suppose you could grab a pale imitation at the roadside stand before Gori, but you really should stop at the town just north of Khashuri where the road is just thick with old ladies flapping nazuki in the air at your passing car, as if hailing a fleet of cabs with steaming bread.

Some enterprising entrepreneur will one day start a real distribution business and then you'll be able to get fresh nazuki and smoked pork and the best khinkali without leaving the capital. But meantime, food is an excuse for traveling, and one of the few, along with wedding parties and funerals, that will really get the Georgians off their duffs.

America is simply too big for this kind of nonsense. You can't force us all to drive to Manhattan for a bagel or to Texas for a fajita (although certainly the best stuff is still worth the trip). In the civic religion of America, the idea that unavailability can be pleasurable is very near apostasy. Sure it's pretty nice to have, at any point in the year, raspberries and avocadoes and grapes and squash whenever you need them. But I never before knew the joy of rounding a corner and seeing, for the first time of the season, the sidewalk fruit and veg stands just blushing with strawberries. Strawberries! And cherries, now, too. Just wait for the peaches, they tell me. You'll simply die. Instead of staring down groaning cornucopias of vegetables bins and trying to snatch from the million recipes floating my head and just ordering a pizza in despair, in a complicated world it is some small relief to look down and say, "Snap peas are looking fresh. Stir fry!"

The meat situation, is decidedly less idyllic, although I've thus far avoided patronizing the shopkeeps what hoist the carcasses on a stick on the roadside. Buying bread out of the trunk of a parked Niva is about as roughing it as I care to get, grocery-shopping-wise.


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