One of my most memorable meals wasn't an actual meal; rather, it was a dining experience cradled in hospitality, friendship, and good, simple food. The place: the patio of a friend's villa in a medieval town in Switzerland. The time: nearing midnight. The setting: like a Turner painting, an almost-full moon lighting the nearby lake. The food: an assortment of Italian cheese, apples and oranges, and rich red wine. Social ingredients: my husband, friends, and Frau Bucher, our hostess.
As the evening evolved, so did my satisfaction. Each person made a spontaneous toast at intervals throughout the evening that linked our hearts and souls and flavored the food — indeed, the entire evening — with love. Since then, I've thought often about how I might imbue my meals with the same soul-satisfying ambience that permeated that evening. Somehow, the thought wouldn't let go.
Then, one New Year's Eve, I met Nailia Menne. Originally from Kazakhstan, Nailia told me about "the Tamada" tradition when I mentioned that the English language needed a new word for the invisible ingredients that created the "meal magic" I had experienced that moonlit night in Switzerland.
"There is an ancient tradition that no Kazakh celebration is complete without wine and a 'Tamada,' the host or toastmaster whose role is to create a pleasurable ambience and ensure that everyone is honored and enjoys the occasion," Nailia told me. "Whether the gathering is small or a meal for many, it is a great honor for the person who is asked to be the Tamada. Throughout the meal, starting with the elderly and followed by those who have traveled far, the Tamada invites each guest to toast.
"From the first to the main course and then dessert," Nailia continued, "every person is honored through the modern expression of an ancient tradition that embodies the best of friendship and shared food."
As New Year's Eve unfolded, I knew I had found not only the word, but also a time-honored ritual that embodies the special spirit of that moonlit evening in Switzerland. "To Tamada-flavored food and friendship!"