When I spotted Priya Basil’s beautifully jacketed Be My Guest it was the third word in its subtitle that caught my eye. Food is pretty high up my agenda, mixing well with that other passion, travel. Basil’s book looked like the sort of comfort reading that would restore my faith in human nature which has taken a battering recently, despite my turning away a little from the 24-hour news cycle, but it turned out to be rather more than that.
Each bite holds the flavour of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.
Basil begins with a declaration that we start our lives as guests, at first in our mothers’ wombs, then as recipients of care and attention until we become independent. She goes on to describe the dish that symbolises her mother’s nurturing to her, always available when she visits until one day it isn’t, and she realises her mother is ageing. Food is an important part of Basil’s family life, the foundation of her grandmother’s marriage, cooking for the man she hoped to marry to save her from disgrace and continuing to do so until it has become both an expression of love and almost a means of control. Drawing on her family history and her own life, Basil explores the meaning and symbolism of food, the responsibilities of being a host and those of being a guest and the importance of communal hospitality in the face of rising individualism.
Food sustains us physically, yet to be fully nourished we must be fed by ideas, feelings, experiences.
This brief, eloquent book ranges far wider in just over a hundred pages than the hymn of praise to food and hospitality I’d been expecting. Politically engaged, Basil explores the idea of generosity through the roles of guest and host, extrapolating it to migration, in particular the opening of her adopted country Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015 and its consequences. She’s a passionate believer in the generosity of the EU’s freedom of movement, disappointed by its failure to deal with the refugee crisis. Brexit, of course, rears its head as that generosity’s counterpoint with its determination to squeeze immigration. Against this backdrop, Basil threads family anecdotes, cultural attitudes to hospitality and musings on her own endearingly self-confessed greed. She has an elegant turn of phrase, describing storytelling as an invitation to readers who repay the courtesy with their attention, and she’s funny, too. The section on reciprocity and the etiquette of taking the last portion – ‘Do you love anyone enough to give them the last Rolo?’ – had me thinking about what happens in our house. My partner went to boarding school – he often can’t help himself. Always best to open negotiations early, I’ve found.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786898494 122 pages Hardback