A search for identity in wine-drenched France

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A search for identity in wine-drenched France

Don’t be fooled by Kim Suneé’s name or the summary on her book’s jacket: “Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home” is not a book about Korea. Yes, Suneé has a Korean face, but adopted at age 3 to New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States, there’s little that ties her to this peninsula.
Instead, Suneé tells her coming-of-age story mostly through sumptuous descriptions of France, where she spent a decade of her life, and her food-fueled European romances. Most notable of Suneé’s lovers is her long, nearly instant entanglement with Olivier Baussan, founder of the French perfume and soap company L’Occitane. With the much older — and much wealthier — Baussan in Provence, Suneé is able to play house in multiple roles. At one point she argues, “...I’m just twenty-four years old and trying so hard, to be the hostess, the cook, the stepmother, the confidante.”
Readers may as well add an emphasis on the cook. As its title suggests, Trail of Crumbs homes in intensely on gustatory delights. While the rootless Suneé never quite feels at home in France, the United States, Korea or any of the other countries she visits, she is the master of her kitchen. She writes: “...the menus I create seem to transcend any need for translation. If anyone thought me an impostor, I learn more and more that you just can’t fake it in the kitchen — it is here I suspect that I just may actually be good at something.”
Most chapters end with a decadent recipe of a related dish: When Suneé returns to New Orleans after years away, she provides an appropriate hometown recipe for a French-fry po-boy with horseradish crème fraîche; when she reminisces about days in Provence, she details la daube provençale.
As Suneé relays the details of her life in thoroughly engrossing, poetic prose, the reader sees her rootless self melding into the life that Baussan has so carefully orchestrated. As much as he attempts to wholly envelop Suneé into his utopia in the south of France, to him, as she writes, she remains merely “a precious chinoiserie.”
In a conversation with Baussan about his estranged wife Dominique, Suneé asks, “Do you see me as Asian or a woman?” He answers, “Well... You’re a woman, of course, so I guess I see you as Asian.” But when Baussan answers that he sees the French Dominique as a woman foremost, he’s stunned to see how he slights Suneé.
Here, and throughout her memoir, Suneé’s struggle to find her identity bubbles to the surface of the wine-drenched idyll she describes. In both the present action of the memoir and the actual construction of her book, Suneé pushes her fleeting memories of Korea into the periphery of her story. Suneé recalls of a conversation with Baussan: “I started to tell him about my dream the night before, the one I often have about the darkness and the fat rat that comes home faster than Omma does, but I am trying to be light and multicolored like the provençal countryside and not tainted like my sleep.”
Korean readers may find Suneé’s depictions of their country hard to swallow at times. Her account of her decades-ago visit to Seoul captures the city in a time of flux, when it appeared an isolated polis lacking hospitality or grace. Seoul’s only redeeming factor, Suneé seems to note, was its delicious street food. In a way, though, Suneé’s description of a rude restaurateur does tap into the traces of extant xenophobia here.
When Suneé’s inevitable break with Baussan occurs, her words bare her constant insecurities about her status as a one-time orphan: “I’ve given you a new life. My friends, my family... they’ve adopted you like their own.’ [Baussan says.] Suddenly, I can’t find the words in any language to tell Olivier that it’s not an honor to be ‘adopted’ again and again...”
At times, Suneé’s pervasive melancholy and angst feel infuriating to a reader, who can easily grow wrapped up in the sheer luxury and comfort of the author’s life. Who could be so miserable sunbathing and gorging oneself on delicacies in the south of France? Her interwoven Hansel and Gretel references (see book’s title — ring a bell?) are a bit on the simple side, as well, as she chronicles her quest for identity and home.
Nevertheless, Suneé’s Trail of Crumbs — part cookbook, part travelogue, all memoir — is a beautifully written page-turner, one that readers can greedily devour like they would the author’s culinary concoctions.

By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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