After a bit of a pause for the bookclub over the holidays we're back this month with a wonderful book that celebrates the power of food to create a sense of belonging and community. Priya Basil's Be My Guest explores the author's relationship with food, describing the delicious kadhi (a creamy curry) her mother makes and how she loves to eat for the sensory pleasure, but also because sharing food gives her a sense of belonging. It also broadens out to consider generosity and cultural attitudes towards 'outsiders'.
The book is about identity and hospitality, about opening up our homes to others and sharing something we've created. It is a wonderful examination of how communities stay together, but also how they exclude. Drawing on her experiences living in Kenya, the UK and Germany, Basil has an intimate connection with each place through the food she is offered and makes. She is also subjected to racist abuse and anti-immigration hostility. Throughout the book Basil makes the case for food as a way to connect people and overcome these barriers. She writes, 'However much or little we think about it, food is a force – and shared its power may be amplified', in a call for us to be more hospitable, more open and willing to taste new things.
Food is such a potent vessel for memories (think of Proust with his madeleine) – as Basil writes, '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.' We all have dishes that remind us instantly of a time in our childhood or of a person or place we loved. but food has a potential beyond just sparking memories. By inviting people to share food together we can strengthen the glue that holds society together, and experience different cultures at a fundamental level.
Basil is not blind to the limits and constraints of hospitality, but through this book she asks questions of each of us: how willing are we to properly relate to others? Can food be a simple pleasure that we are happy to share? From the smallest level of our home to the wider national identity, what space are we able to make for new arrivals and experiences? In Be My Guest we see both how we sometimes close ourselves off, and the opportunities for greater welcome.
This might make the book sound rather worthy and dry. It's not. Basil's writing is playful, sensuous and funny. She acknowledges that despite her Sikh background stressing unconditional hospitality, there were times when people were still excluded. Her grandmother refused to share recipes for the incredible food she made, preferring instead to make it herself and keep control. Basil explores these examples of limited hospitality with clarity and wisdom rather than judgement, which prevents the book feeling like a polemic.
It's the kind of book that makes you want to learn a new recipe, then invite your friends round to try it. An informal gathering around a simple table, but one that reinforces the things we have in common.
What meal or food takes you back to a particular moment in time? Tell us in the comments below and we'll enter you into a prize draw to win a copy of the next Bookclub book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.