Be My Guest by Priya Basil: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity

Cover image 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

26 thoughts on “Be My Guest by Priya Basil: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity”

  1. I think I have to read this one – food and hospitality plays such an important part in my culture (although, ironically, my mother is not the best cook or welcoming host, but there are reasons for that – she left home early and went to boarding school, so never acquired those skills). And I love cheery yellow covers – I’ve just read a book which I borrowed from the library mainly because of its bright yellow cover!

  2. I read this last month and was as impressed with it as you were! I particularly enjoyed Basil’s exploration of generosity in Sikh culture, with the policy of free gurdwara meals, and how she delves into the ways in which people are or aren’t encouraged to take up that supposedly open-to-all invitation. Loved the nuance. (And her writing about her grandmother’s cooking felt so relatable, especially the way food, even though given lovingly, turns into a mechanism for control.)

    1. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed Sikh generosity in the wake of terrorist atrocities – small things like free cabs immediately offered without fuss. You’re right about the nuance. I hope you sell lots of this one in the run up to Christmas!

      1. Good point—like in Manchester! I hadn’t remembered that. (We’ll definitely sell it; I’m sending it to everyone who mentions the slightest interest in food or “culture” generally.)

  3. Food of the baked variety has always been an important part of my family’s life too. My father was a baker and my mother managed the shops that sold all his cakes and bread. Even now he is retired he doesn’t stop baking. Which means every time I visit I get all sorts of goodies pressed upon me – today’s offerings were mincemeat muffins and scones. We often have long discussions about recipes only trouble being he finds it hard to scale down to just one cake when he is used to making them by the score….

  4. ‘Do you love anyone enough to give them the last Rolo?’ — What a great question! In my case it would be a cookie or a peanut m&m… But that is actually hard for me. My kids pass the test easily, but everyone else needs to be carefully considered. 😉

    1. Ha! It was an advertising strapline from quite some time ago, and a clever one, I think. We usually come to an understanding but those boarding school days have resulted in my partner eating as if someone was about to steal the food from under his nose.

  5. Pingback: 11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst – Bookish Beck

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