Grand Central Publishing, January 2008
A tiny handful of food was Kim Sunée's first memory connecting food and home. In a bustling market in Korea, the three-year-old sat on a bench, holding the food tightly, waiting for her mother to return for her. After three days and nights, local police took the frightened girl to the station, her untouched morsel reduced to crumbles. "...I shook my clenched fist at them. As they proceeded with abandonment papers, I scrambled to ground to gather the crumbs, insisting: She told me not to leave. She promised she'd be back."
Thus began an unsettled feeling, a "constant need for departure," that grows with the author as she is adopted and raised by a New Orleans family, as she goes to college in Florida and France, and as she spends her twenties immersed in a variety of countries, cultures, and cuisines.
Sunée's compelling memoir, Trail of Crumbs, carries this edge throughout. Even as she finds herself, at twenty-one, in a serious relationship with a wealthy French entrepreneur (the founder of L'Occitane), she has the sense that whatever's happening in her life is somehow a step removed, that it's not quite meant for her. She struggles with a series of anxieties, feeling grounded only when she's cooking.
Trail of Crumbs has a novel quality, deftly moving the story along. You wonder where the restless young woman will travel, what she'll do next, if she'll stay with the entrepreneur. In a novel, some of the book's events might seem too contrived; in a memoir, they are riveting. Flying to other countries on impulse. Tending a dear friend dying of cancer. Moving to Sweden after college, knowing nothing of the language or culture. Dealing with a critical mother. Reveling in her first taste of a raw oyster. Dating a famous French poet. Seeking therapy. Living in Provence and cooking with fresh herbs from the countryside. Writing poetry. Stepmothering. All before the age of thirty.
It's a whirlwind stage of her life that keeps her unsettled. She tells of herself mostly in terms of self-doubt and bewilderment; praise of her talents tends to come from others around her. In her writing, she nicely allows the events to play out as inherently intriguing, without romanticizing them further. Her descriptions are evocative but not overdone, and the book never ventures into the realm of self-importance.
This is especially crucial when it comes to the food. Cooking is her mainstay throughout, and it would be easy for this to become overbearing. But Sunée carefully weaves it in at just the right moments, and the food constantly symbolizes a form of home or identity. Growing up in New Orleans, her comfort food comes from her grandfather, Poppy, in gumbos and stuffed-crawfish bisque. In Sweden, she encounters potatoes in cream, pickled herring sandwiches, saffron yeast buns, and a sense of her adoptive father's Scandinavian heritage. France opens her to all manner of experimentation with sauces, salads, cheese, and herbs---to croque madame, peaches poached in wine, and delicate truffles, culinary experiences that she ties to the landscape around her. And visits to an array of countries offer still different tastes, from the hot pepper paste of French Guiana to kimchi from her native South Korea.
Most chapters end with two or three recipes. Although this is a nice touch, they somewhat interrupt the flow of the story; I found it better to read the book's entire narrative first, then to go back and investigate the recipes. Most seem achievable for those who wish to try, for instance, Uncle Kerry's Monday Red Beans and Rice or Cream of Chestnut Soup. Some recipes will simply be more time consuming than others, and a few have somewhat specialized ingredients, though Sunée (the founding food editor of Cottage Living magazine) has suggested alternatives if needed.
But the book is not about recipes. It's about the feeling of home, whether found in a comfort food from your youth or in a life where you call your own shots. While the tantalizing flavors of smoked oysters in Hong Kong, grilled octopus in Greece, and warm flat bread in Tunisia linger throughout, Trail of Crumbs is ultimately the story of a fascinating young woman who simultaneously finds home nowhere and everywhere.