Following a Trail of Crumbs to Self-Understanding

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Kim Sunée
Photo: JMM

When Kim Sunée was three years old, in 1973, she was found abandoned on a bench in a South Korean marketplace with a fistful of food left her by her mother. At the police station where she was taken, she writes in her memoir, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home (Grand Central), a January Book Sense Pick, she spoke to the officers with insistence about her mother: "She told me not to leave. She promised she'd be back."

Ever since, Sunée -- now living in Birmingham, Alabama, and the founding food editor of Cottage Living -- has clung to language, and to food, as mutual sources of comfort and survival.

"When I was three, I spoke Korean, they said, fairly fluently," Sunée explained. "But English was the first language of survival, I guess, and then Swedish, and then French."

Adopted by an American couple, Sunée was raised in New Orleans, where her incipient awareness and love of food was brought to the boil by the culinary and social acts of her adopted mother's father. "My grandfather," she said, "was an amazing cook. He just made big pots of gumbo and crawfish bisque for everyone. He was the heart of the family, and I think it was his cooking that brought everyone together. It wasn't about him. It was really about food as a gift to everyone else -- to his loved ones, and to neighbors -- and even to people off the streets. I remember numerous holidays when there would be homeless people sitting at the table with us."

In New Orleans, too, Sunée's love of language and verbal expression flowered -- through "voracious" reading, and then early efforts at writing fiction and poetry. "When I was 12, I was reading The Bell Jar, and Love Story, Nabokov, John Cheever," she explained. "I was writing poetry and short stories when I was 12, 13, 14. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what that meant."

The future author got a sense of some possibilities when, at 13, she was accepted for admission to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. "We had visiting writing teachers from all over," Sunée recalled, "and they really did introduce us to everything. We were reading Jim Harrison, and watching Godard, and Wim Wenders -- things that I would not have done at home." Even more important, she said, was the instructors' attitude. "The teachers treated us like we were much older ... as people who wanted to be writers. And Ellis Marsalis was teaching music, and there were dancers and visual artists. It was a very interesting atmosphere for New Orleans, I think, in the '80s."

Kim Sunée completed college at the University of Nice and then traveled in Europe. "My whole life, I've sort of been a wanderer, and since I don't really know where I'm from, I think that it was easier for me to sort of drift and go anywhere. So I ended up in Stockholm, and I taught French and English. And then I fell in love with a Frenchman and moved to France -- to Provence and Paris."

With the Frenchman, a wealthy entrepreneur, Sunée lived a life many would find enviable. "It was wonderful, and glamorous, and lovely, and all that you would imagine," she agreed, "but being in a place like Provence [with] a person very deeply rooted in where he was from -- and the fact that I didn't know where I was from -- just made that contrast even sharper and more difficult. So cooking, for me, became like language: another form of survival. It was probably the only thing that I thought I could do well. And, like with my grandfather, it was a gift. It was a way to give love to other people. So that's what I did. I cooked all season long, for 30 to 40 people at a time."

Sunée did other things, too -- including, with the backing of her boyfriend, run a poetry bookshop in Paris. All of this added to her French friends' -- and Kim Sunée's own -- confusion regarding her cultural and personal nature, during her early- and mid-twenties. "The French looked at me -- Korean, from New Orleans, cooking and living in France -- and they wanted to give me an identity," she remembered. "You know, 'She's the American,' or 'She's the Asian-American,' or 'She's the poet.'

"I just knew that I was sort of a dilettante. I was still searching, really, to figure out what I would allow myself to say that I was."

At last she tired of this ambiguous existence. "So I went on strike," she said with a laugh, "as all good French citizens do at one point in their lives. I left the relationship, stayed on in Paris for a little while, and started writing -- writing this story."

Sunée had no thoughts at first of publishing her memoir. "I just knew I had to write it," she said, "to make sense of things, for myself." In 2000, she returned to America, bringing with her a number of journals and manuscript pages. "I came back to the States knowing I wanted to write, and so I did."

In time, Sunée got an agent, and the agent got her a book contract, and the end result is Trail of Crumbs -- a work begun as a search for identity, and now about to acquire its separate existence in the world.

"I think when you write a memoir," Sunée said, "you really have to step outside of yourself, in order for the narrative to take on a life of its own. And I feel that the book has sort of done that. It's beyond me, now. And I like that. It feels liberating."

Woven throughout this liberating text are some two-dozen recipes -- from "wild peaches poached in Lillet Blanc and lemon verbena" to three kinds of "midnight pasta" -- which seems fitting for a work that begins in a marketplace in South Korea and ends in a marketplace in France. "I realized that food is such a big part of my life, and of this story -- the recipes, for me, felt natural. It was a guiding force, and not an afterthought. The book is about searching for an identity, and the food that grounds and comforts, at each part of the journey." --Tom Nolan