Although conceived well before the advent of the pandemic, Priya Basil’s Be My Guest: Reflections on food, community, and the meaning of generosity, ends up particularly appropriate to this time of reflection, winter holidays, and the much hoped-for re-emergence from the current cloud under which we live. For anyone who enjoyed the travelogues of Anthony Bourdain, Be My Guest is a deeper and weightier exposition of the themes he explored—starting with food and extending to the movements of governments, and the meaning of self and other—and Basil similarly shares the joys of both writing and eating.
Basil catalogues the foods of her childhood, and the stories of her mother’s and grandmother’s relationships to cooking and providing nourishment to their families. Interwoven with these richly textured memories are personal, sometimes self-deprecating, observations on her own relationships with these women, and their choice foods.
Kadhi is what awaits me every time I go see my mother. Mostly in London, but wherever she happens to be—Australia or Kenya, the countries where my siblings live—whenever I come, kadhi is cooked. It is what I take away from each visit as well; my mother prepares and freezes batches of the tarka, the spicy tomato base at the heart of much North Indian cuisine, the most time-consuming aspect of the dish. Roasting spices, browning onions, reducing tomatoes—this alone can take up to an hour, before the main ingredients of the dish are added and the whole mixture is cooked further… All I have to do at home in Berlin is heat up Mum’s tarka, add yoghurt and flour, sprinkle fresh coriander to finish, and I have the taste of another home, the feeling of time turning in slow, savoury spirals. Each bite holds the flavor of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.
For this early 20th-century generation of women, their sphere of influence was limited—so Basil’s grandmother, for example, maximized her opportunities.
Requests for recipes … were never obliged: Mumji evolved a repertoire of tactics for rebuffing them. “Forget the recipe! I’ll just make it for you again,” she promised her preferred people, while those she liked less but dared not risk alienating were told, “There is no recipe, you just have to watch me make it.” Needless to say, the occasion would never arise. Even in the communal family kitchen she contrived to guard her methods from her in-laws… Every compliment and thank-you has to be hers. All of it. Every last word, every sigh, every burp. All hers. Only hers. And there’s never, ever enough. As with many women of her background and era, her means were limited. Food was one force she could harness, and so the kitchen became her combat zone. She would destroy any doubts about her past by cooking up a most flavoursome present.
Basil also explores the larger context of food with respect to politics, noting that British colonial administrations did little to mitigate famines wrought by severe weather, which, she argues, weakened the local populace and allowed the colonizers to tighten their control. Her own background provides plenty of fodder taking up this history, as she is of Indian descent, born in London, raised partly in Kenya, currently living in Germany. This circumstance reflects the geographic span of the British colonies, as well as the layers of privilege related to race, color, education, citizenship, and length of residency which she mines very successfully.
At first I was contemptuous when a public debate flared about the appropriateness—or not—of serving pork in German schools where there are large numbers of Muslim children. This particular discussion took place in 2016, a year after around 800,000 mainly Syrian refugees, fleeing war in their country, had arrived in Germany. Why don’t they just introduce vegetarian meals and be done with it? I wondered, irritated by the brigade that acts as though identity is encased in a wurst. I felt a bit more sympathetic when I considered that the food fights were merely ersatz battles for clashes on more profound questions: Who are we becoming? Who do we want to be?
While musing on generosity, Basil considers philosopher Jacques Derrida’s proposal for absolute, or unconditional, hospitality: to “open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering in a pact) or even their names.”
The very unattainability makes it exemplary as a goal. It continually flabbergasts you and thus demands a constant vigilance of yourself—your inclinations and prejudices, assumptions and actions. This doesn’t mean slipping into moral or cultural relativism, but maintaining an ever-receptive stance.
She visits a Sikh temple, to experience the tradition of the langar, the practice of offering a free meal to which all are welcome. The food and ceremony is familiar, as she has attended others, but as a manifestation of unconditional hospitality, it falls short of the connection or revelation for which she hopes. Basil’s candor and depth of examination and feeling, along with her moving turns of phrase, is compelling.