Trail of crumbs

The literary world has reacted viscerally to Kim Sunee’s account of how food became a grounding anchor in a life seasoned by displacement.

December 4, 2010 23:29
KIM SUNEE: The end of April or early May is the be

Kim Sunee 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Roberto Frankenberg)

GLENS FALLS, New York – Since her memoir became a best-seller in 2008, Kim Sunee has been spending time exploring one of her favorite places – the open road. In addition to discovering far corners of the globe, Sunee, who grew up in Louisiana, is often found promoting her other passion – food.

Today’s stop is an upstate New York cooking show, where she’ll prepare chilled blueberry soup and her favorite pasta dish. There’s an exotic soft note that pronounces Sunee’s southern belle demure, and the studio lighting from above only intensifies it. She stands at the gas stove, explaining in her light drawl, the basics of “Midnight Pasta.”

No matter that she’s up to her elbows in prep duty as the cameras roll. Sunee seems perfectly at ease in a sleeveless black dress and ivory shawl, effortlessly keeping the curtain of fringe away from the heat as she pokes a spatula around a pan of sizzling cherry tomatoes, olive oil and minced garlic. She gives the skillet a final shake before pouring in a cascade of ribbon-thin onion slices and anchovy fillets, which she promises viewers “will not overpower the dish.”

Then Sunee (pronounced Soo-NAY) launches into a conversation on travel tips with the show’s host, cookbook author and caterer Sally Longo.

“The end of April or early May is the best time to visit New Orleans,” says Sunee. “I hate Mardi Gras, but the Jazz Festival is a really good time to go.”

Cooking demos and travel advice may seem like unorthodox topics for memoir promotion, but not if your book is Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and the Search for Home.

For the past year, the literary world has reacted viscerally to Sunee’s account of how food became a grounding anchor in a life seasoned by displacement, epicurean discoveries and world travels.

The book opens with a heart-wrenching scene at a Seoul police station: A tiny slip of a three-year-old is shaking a soiled fist at officers as they fill out what has become routine in their country – abandonment papers. The frightened child clenching a wadded piece of bread was rounded up after sitting for days on a bench in a crowded open-air market. Her mother, she shouts, has promised to return.

Trail of Crumbs chronicles a “where do I belong?” odyssey that centers around the author’s passion for orchestrating unforgettable dishes (Whispery Eggs with Crabmeat), coupled with the inescapable ache she carries from her birthplace. It’s both a sensual and sad account of an emotionally disjointed childhood in New Orleans, followed by absorbing sojourns in Nice, Stockholm, Provence, Paris and Korea.

Her adoptive parents are well meaning but distant.

Instead, Sunee finds solace with her beloved Poppy, who teaches her the joys of making a flawless crawfish bisque.

Food, specifically hedonistic ingredients such as lemon verbena, truffles and crème de cassis, are both a means of loving others and salving her emotional scars. Throughout the book’s storied locations, the author struggles to come to terms with her past and find a comfortable present.

“I get mail from all over the world from adoptees, and not just Asian adoptees,” Sunee explains in a post-cooking show interview. “I always thought my book would appeal to armchair travelers, but never anticipated the response I’ve gotten from people who were adopted.”

The author says she’s moved when they share personal stories and reveal that Trail of Crumbs gives them a reference point for unexpressed pain.

“You never know how a book is going to touch someone,” says Sunee as she pulls the shawl a little more snugly around her petite frame. “Another reader told me she relates to the book for the ‘what are you going to do with your life?’ question it poses.”

Sunee’s memories of her first three years are hazy shadows, dreamlike recollections of a life cut abruptly short.

She remembers that the family home was set high off the ground, perhaps on stilts, and heated from underneath.

“There was no furniture and we sat on the floor of the living room to get warm,” she recalls.

Later, growing up in Louisiana, her mother noticed the youngster’s love of hot, spicy foods from the start, which only fueled Sunee’s love of Creole dishes.

She’s not a chef, but food has woven itself inexorably into Sunee’s life, both personally and professionally.

Throughout the book, she it makes clear that food plays a passionate, sometimes erotic role in her search for purpose and stability.

During her first sojourn abroad, Sunee takes readers through the delights of picture-perfect spring peas, fresh bacon slabs and just-picked tomatoes she finds at the open-air market in Nice and later transforms into an unforgettable meal for her astonished college roommates.

A good chunk of the book focuses on Sunee’s mixed feelings over her romance with a French businessman whose passionate nature and attentive generosity can’t change the fact that she continues to ache from the core.

“Travel made me feel more alive,” she explains. “Part of it was trying to escape... I had no sense of being rooted.”

Sunee loved to write from an early age, poetry in particular.

Her gastronomic roots from her southern childhood, coupled with world travels, prompted her to begin formulating a cookbook. But in the midst of a pitch meeting with a potential agent, the details of Sunee’s life story snapped the agent to attention and sent the manuscript the way of the memoir. Since it was impossible to remove food from the equation, each chapter includes a recipe that Sunee either developed herself or was given by a friend or family member.

Book signings for Trail of Crumbs tend to be anything but ordinary. Somewhere in between splashing her signature across the title page and giving a recap of arid summers in Provence, the 39-year-old usually finds herself offering an empathetic shoulder to someone with a searching question from adoptive parents and adopted children alike. One woman in the audience on a recent stop raised her hand to ask for guidance in treating her adoptive daughters with the proper blend of honesty and sensitivity.

“I’m always surprised when parents ask me for advice. I don’t pretend to know the answers,” she says. “Many adoptees who write to me have expressed feeling ‘lost’ and that they ‘don’t fit in.’ They often keep these feelings to themselves for fear of appearing ungrateful.

“I think adopting a child is a wonderful gift, but I also believe that adopting often requires more understanding and love and patience as a parent, as well as honesty and unconditional love and empathy.”

Sunee makes occasional trips to Korea and has mixed feelings about the idea of reconnecting with her birth family. Her first visit in 1994 left her feeling more, not less alienated. But when she returned in 2008, heralded as a best-selling “Korean-born author,” the sense of welcome was visceral.

“I was on Google’s home page in Korea,” she recalls with a smile.

Still, the experience was bittersweet. “I was Korean, but wasn’t Korean. There’s shame over all these kids who are adopted. Children are their greatest export. They even have talk shows that try to match kids with their birth families, that’s how prevalent it is. I’m referred to as Korean, but I’m not. They lost us – they lost me.”

Following a four-year tenure as food editor of the now-defunct Cottage Living magazine, Sunee helps noteworthy chefs with recipe development for their cookbooks. And she’s begun another book, which will focus on her continuing quest for finding a more permanent home in the world by way of returning to Korea.

“I return to Seoul to do a more in-depth search for my birth family, as well as gain a deeper understanding of Korean cuisine,” she says. “The book is about letting go of certain aspects of one’s past and, in exchange, what we discover about ourselves.”

And if Trail of Crumbs is any indication, those discoveries will probably be delectable.

A Hebrew edition of Trail of Crumbs is now available.

For more information on the author, visit

The writer is a freelancer based in Lake George, N.Y.

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