Be my Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity (Canongate Books, 2019) by Priya Basil is an eloquent book crafted with the same precision as the eye-catching porcelain plate on the front cover — gold and cobalt hues on a platter are fashioned into garlic, wooden spoons, foliage, forks, beans, serving pots, pasta bowls, and human hands. The swirling design mesmerizes and draws you into the book, where the captivation with the visual is replaced by an enthralling cascade of words about food, religion, culture, love, politics, family, and cooking — all set at a global dinner table that is clearly Basil’s comfortable place to bring thought-provoking ideas.
Basil is a true global citizen with a melange of cultures influencing her tastes as a food lover, author, and activist. She was born in England to Indian parents who moved to Kenya to raise her. Living in Berlin as an adult after marrying a German, she now dabbles in the Sikhism of her ancestors as it relates to treating all humans equally and altruistically serving the community. But her deepest cravings always come back to her mother’s cooking, her most favourite dish in the world, the essence of her mother, the taste of her home: the creamy curry dish, kadhi. She writes, “Each bite holds the flavour of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.”
Kadhi and many other traditional Indian dishes are the taste of home for Basil, which has unfolded from her maternal grandmother’s kitchen. Her grandmother’s unconditional desire to cook for others is legendary in the family. “She wields ingredients like weapons and has made food the front line in a fight for first place in the affections of family.” This often meant not letting others in on the secrets of her recipes. Even though being asked for a personal recipe is the ultimate compliment, her grandmother hoarded them in her brain and Basil tells us “if she was ever cornered into explaining how to make a dish, she deliberately left out key ingredients or crucial steps.” She never owned a cookbook and never wrote down any of her recipes.
Whether or not a recipe comes from family secrets or a cookbook, Basil writes, “The food that is cooked for you is imbued with an ingredient no recipe can list, no culinary sleight of hand can substitute: hospitality.” In her book, she delves deeper into how hospitality has many dimensions and is not just about inviting guests for dinner — although it is that in spades for Basil, who would undoubtedly be an outstanding hostess. Hospitality is also about accepting refugees fleeing from war-ravaged countries by giving food, shelter, and safety in the welcoming arms of another culture or religion. Being a guest in the world means having to be a continual host, to address the needs of other humans by donating to religious charities, volunteering time for humanitarian services, feeding the hungry, and eliminating as much food waste as we can.
We are all guests and hosts at differing times in our lives. We all must be participants in the give and take of life in varying circumstances. Basil writes, “The way we cook for and eat with others is one of the more tangible, quotidian ways of measuring generosity.” Food gives us the chance to fall into the social arrangements of inviting guests to our homes for dinners that represent our familial or cultural heritage, or the more public display of fighting over a bill at the end of a restaurant meal, but all we’re really trying to do is make ourselves feel at home wherever we have settled.