Diet and Culture of Abkhasian Centenarians
The Abkhasians had a way of life that is out of reach for modern man, or so it seems! One of the arguments that is often used to promote modern medical technology (vaccinations etc) is that we are living to be much older than we used to. I must point out that even with all of our advanced medical technology, we still haven’t managed to extend our lives, with most of our faculties (including sexual vigor!) still intact, as long as the Abkhasians or other long-living peoples (110-130 yrs) managed to do without any of our medical intervention.
This book (Abkhasians The Long-Living People of the Caucasus), by Sula Benet, who was born in Warsaw, Poland and later got her PhD at Columbia, is a very comprehensive anthropological study of the Abkhasians culture. I’ve been curious about centenarians ever since I wrote my first paper in Culinary School years ago. Diet, culture and community are obviously all factors in the Abkhasian’s long life, the altitude, amount of exercise and harsh conditions may also play a role. The Abkhasian’s diet fits into what Dr. Weston A. Price found with traditional cultures, although it is interesting to find that they prefer to eat salad for breakfast. Perhaps this is a way to provide enzymes. They also love to drink their matzoni (like yogurt). In line with the GAPS diet or even with a more paleo type diet, the Abkhasians also used nuts quite extensively in their meals, their carbohydrates were mostly from chestnuts, lima beans or cornmeal (which would have been a later addition). They didn’t eat refined flour, oils or sugar. (Image of Abkhasian woman harvesting tea from Sula Benet’s book)
Milk was a very sacred substance for them, and milk-siblings were children who nursed from the same woman. In fact the milk-bond was as powerful as the blood-bond. The Abkhasian society was carefully set up to minimize fighting and to promote community and support within families and tribes. Perhaps our modern world could learn a lot from the way they raise their children, with the whole family supporting and encouraging them and without punishment.
The following are some of my favorite sections from Sula Benet’s book, although there are some really interesting passages that include legends and kinship rituals that I can’t include here. A dry but interesting read.
Abkhasians The Long-Living People of the Caucasus by Sula Benet 1974
The Abkhasia diet does not seem to change significantly with an increase in wealth. The daily consumption of protein is an estimated seventy-three grams per person; fat, about 476 grams; and carbohydrates, about 381 grams.
Historically, milk and vegetables make up 70 percent of the Abkhasian diet.
Refined sugar is not a part of the diet. Before retiring, people who wish to have something sweet may take a glass of water with honey. During the autumn harvest, grapes are pressed for their juice, and cornmeal is added to it. The mixture is boiled for a few minutes, allowed to cool, and eaten as a pudding. Or a string of nuts may be dipped into it and dried for dessert. Fruits are dried for the winter as are chestnuts. These are cooked in milk or water, or they may be roasted and accompanied by wine.
Matzoni (Cultured milk):
Abkhasians, young and old, drink one or two glasses of matzoni (Caspian Sea Yogurt) a day. This variety of fermented milk has been used among Caucasian people for many centuries and probably originated in this part of the world. Matzoni is made from the milk of various animals, such as cows, goats and sheep. It has nutritional and physiological value similar to other cultured milks.
Matzoni has low curd tension, which means the curd breaks up into extremely small particles which facilitates its digestion. The fermentation is usually started through the use of matzoni grains, which in appearance resemble small, spongy grains of rice. These masses consist of milk constituents and microorganisms in particular, Bacillus caucasicum and Streptococcus A.
Matzoni can also be produced by adding a few spoonfuls of the previous batch to fresh milk, either skimmed or whole. Fresh cottage cheese without preservatives will work too.
In appearance and taste, matzoni is very much like buttermilk. It has a high food value, and according to Soviet physicians, therapeutic properties as well, especially in the case of intestinal disorders.
Wild pears are cooked into a thick syrup, with no additives, until it resembles jam. This syrup is then used like honey in cooking. Pear jam is also added to hot water and given to sick people to induce sweating which they believe is curative.
Vegetables are served cooked or raw, but are most commonly pickled. A favorite dish eaten almost every day is baby lima beans, cooked slowly for hours, mashed and flavored with a sauce of onions, green peppers, coriander, garlic and pomegranate juice. For memorial rituals lima beans are cooked with crushed walnuts.
Nuts are used in large quantities, grated or crushed for cooking, or eaten whole. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, beech nuts and hazelnuts are cultivated along the coast and in the foothills. Chestnut trees grow wild and profusely, as do many other small wild nut trees. The local population collects large supplies of chestnuts for the winter. They are stored in a special place in the household where they can dry well, and then are used through the winter as needed. A particularly tasty dish, made of chestnuts, is a great favorite of the people. The chestnuts are shelled and then cooked for a long time until they resemble a thick mash. After that assorted nuts such as almonds, pecans, beechnuts, or hazelnuts are added to the mash. The mixture is then served directly upon a wooden table top. A small dent is pressed into each serving of chestnut mash and a small amount of nut oil is poured into the depression.
Toward the end of World War II, nuts were exported from the Caucasus and the people did not have enough for their own needs. Most of Abkhasian food in one way or another is flavored with nuts, never butter. They also serve nuts made in a special way along with vodka, as we would serve hors d’oeuvres.
Abkhasians eat many plants which grow wild in their region, such as the barberry (Barberis vulgaris). This they combine with damson plums and tomatoes for a delicious sauce.
Large quantities of garlic, both cooked and raw, are consumed daily, because Abkhasians like the taste and believe it has medicinal properties.
When meat is boiled, the stock is discarded, since the elders consider it harmful to the constitution. Meat is roasted in open fires on spits and skewers–either wooden or metal. Pomegranate juice is used for basting, enhancing the aroma and adding a reddish color. Though fish abound in the rivers and Black Sea, the people rarely eat them.
In general, foods are cooked without salt or spices, except for adzhika, a hot sauce made of red pepper, salt, dill, garlic, coriander, onions, nuts, damson plums, tomato and beet greens. This mixture is carefully ground on a flat surface with a round stone. The product is aromatic and bitter.
The Abkhasians usually begin breakfast with a salad of green vegetables freshly picked from the garden. During the spring, it always consists of watercress, green onion, and radishes. In summer and winter, tomatoes and cucumbers are most popular, while winter salad consists of pickled cucumber and tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, and onions. Dill and coriander may be added but no dressings are used. The salad is followed by a glass of matzoni. At all three meals the people eat their “beloved abista” (cornmeal mash), always freshly cooked and served warm with pieces of homemade goat cheese tucked into it.
Abkhasians never eat or drink until they are stuffed, for such excessiveness is considered very unbecoming. From childhood on, one learns that in eating, as in all other aspects of Abkhasian life, moderation is valued above all other virtues.
Soviet medical authorities who have examined the Abkhasians and their diet feel it may well add years to their lives. Metchnikoff, the well-known Russian biologist, has suggested that the matzoni and pickled vegetables, and probably the wine, counteract toxic effects of the accumulated products of metabolism in the body and indirectly prevent the development of arteriosclerosis. They also have remarkable hearing. (p23-26)
Milk Siblings (Atalyk):
The term atalyk is used in ethnographic literature to describe a custom once practised in the Caucasus. A boy or girl, shortly after birth, was usually given by a family of greater and social standing to one of a lesser position. However, families of equal standing could do so as well.
The child and his milk siblings (that is the children who were nursed by the same woman) were taught the same customs, skills, and manners, so that an Abkhasian peasant knew as much as a prince.
The link established between two families, one of which received the child of another, was considered sacred and even stronger than the bond of blood. Inter-marriage between the two families, their relatives, and any people of the same surname was immediately forbidden.
When the child came of age, his return home to his natural parents was celebrated by a great feast. His duty to his milk siblings and family continued for life. He protected them from any danger, and came to their assistance in time of need. In fact, all blood and ritual relationships involve lifetime obligations, and ritual kinship is not established lightly. By contrast, merely a sexual relationship, can be dissolved.
This system of milk-siblings served to cement ties between different families, to reduce the distance between social classes, to ensure uniformity of culture, and to make peace between feuding families. In the past, when a family was engaged in a feud and feared retaliation, they would sometimes kidnap a child and declare that they were going to raise it, thus automatically ending the hostilities. The parents of the child could not reclaim it and continue the feud, since the child in all probability had already been nursed, and milk is considered a sacred substance. (p57-58)
Abkhasians are known to perform the ritual with wild animals which have been annoying their homes and livestock in order to gain the goodwill of the animal. I was told that in the community of Khlou, in the region of Khodor, a wolf often attacked the cows and lambs of a shepherd in the village. In desperation, the shepherd when to search for his enemy. It turned out to be a she-wolf with a litter of cubs. He killed the she-wolf but took the little ones to his house, and when they grew up he let them go free, hoping that as their milk-father, he would be immune to wolves and that they could not possibly harm him.
It is said that the shepherd even performed the ritual, his wife sitting on a chair and permitting the cubs to touch her breasts, giving them the status of sons. Since then, the story goes, the wolves never touched his cattle and the shepherd never killed wolves. Mindful of his forest family, he always left some food in the forest for them.
The theme to milk relatives appears frequently in Abkhasian folklore. People felt that it was quite possible to make anyone a milk relative, from a wolf to a god. -p61
A parent expresses disapproval by withholding praise, which is otherwise very generously dispensed. The Abkhasian concept of discipline, considered necessary and good for children, in not intertwined with the concept of punishment. Abkhasians feel taht physical punishment induces disrespect. This may be the reason for so little resentment between the generations: the Abkhasian method of discipline does not allow for the development and expression of even the mildest forms of sadistic impulse. Also, with no threat of punishment there is less attempt on the part of the child to see how far he can go. -p69
The Abkhasians expect to live long and healthy lives. They feel that self-discipline is necessary to conserve their energies instead of grasping what sweetness is available to them at the moment.
The general opinion among Abkhasians is that regular sexual relations should start late in life, because abstinence will prolong sexual potency and promote wellbeing. Postponement of satisfaction is not deemed frustrating but, rather, a hopeful expectation of future enjoyment. A continuation of sex life into old age is considered as natural as maintaining a healthy appetite or sound sleep. Abkhasians do not think that there is any reason why increased years should stip them of so human a function.
Among the aged, there are no bachelors or spinsters. Celibacy is regarded to a certain extent, as abnormal, antisocial, and contrary to human nature. In one study, only one elderly spinster in the village of Shroma could be found. Very often, the old people give their good family life and late marriages as some fo the reasons for their longevity. Many of the Abkhasian aged got married between the ages of forty and fifty, which was considered quite normal in former times, and stayed married for fifty, severnty, or even eighty years. There are quite a number of instance where both husband and wife are still alive, and often the husband is older by twenty to thrity years. At present, to the consternation of the elders, young people tend to marry in their middle twenties, instead of waiting until the more “proper” age of thirty.
Despite the elaborate rules–perhaps, in part, because they are universally accepted–sex in Abkhasia is considered a good and pleasurable thing when it is strictly private. As difficult as it may be for the American mind to grasp, it is also guiltless. It is not repressed or sublimated into work, art, or religious-mystical passion. It is not an evil to be driven from one’s thoughts. It is a pleasure to be regulated for the sake of one’s health–like a good wine. -p86