Grand Central Publishing. 376 pages. $13.99 (paperback)
If human nature perplexes you, be assured that Trail of Crumbs will leave you wondering even more about the nature of humans.
Trail of Crumbs joins the ever-increasing ranks of a new food-writing genre — the food/culinary memoir. Recent members of this club include: The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry; The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken; Eat, Pray, Love; Heat; My Tenth Muse. Some are better than others, because they mine the vein of universality, while others only indulge in self-absorbed navel gazing.
Trail of Crumbs straddles both the universal and the navel gazing. Especially the latter.
Kim Sunée, an American woman of South Korean birth, writes with a pen you could swear she dips in her own blood. And in a way, she does.
Ostensibly about food and hunger, Trail of Crumbs reveals a tempest in the teapot. While the author, sad to say, writes beautifully and cooks beautifully, she loves poorly.
And no wonder.
Abandoned in a South Korean open-air market by her mother, Kim sits on a bench in freezing cold weather for three days, waiting for her mother, or Omma, to return. Omma never shows. Transferred to an orphanage, Kim eventually ends up adopted by a young American couple stationed in Okinawa. They take her back to New Orleans to live when the father’s tour in the Air Force is up. There follows the usual teenage angst and college confusion, some semester-abroad excitement, and a sojourn in Sweden.
But the bulk of this frank confessional memoir concerns Sunée’s long affair with French businessman, Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane, whom she meets in Stockholm. At age 22, Sunée goes to live with him at his sumptuous seigneurial manor house in Provence. As his chatelaine, she cooks for his friends, mothers his young daughter, and enjoys every comfort that money can buy. Her sensuous descriptions of the beauty surrounding her evoke dreamscapes and outright envy, colored bright green.
And the food! Dozens of sumptuous recipes appear throughout the book, giving you a taste experience as well as a visual one. Almond-Saffron Cake, Chicken Thighs with Dates and Cinnamon, Spaghetti with Cream and Pancetta, Figs Roasted in Red Wine with Cream and Honey, Chilled Blueberry Soup (see recipe below) … Oh my!
In spite of the luxury, in spite of the love that the older, if somewhat controlling, Olivier proclaims for Sunée, she suffers from depression, panic attacks, and a sense of loss that never seem to disappear. Her adoptive family passes in and out of the story, and it becomes clear that the troubled Sunée feels close to no one.
She believes, and states it often, that food and cooking allowed her to “find” herself. But somehow she always needs more, of what she doesn’t seem to know. That’s where the hunger keeps seeping in.
Although the book feels unfinished, the ending disappointing, there’s a reason for that. Sunée herself is still evolving into something. Even she doesn’t really know what she’s seeking, even though the subtitle of the book proclaims “Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home.” Her story illustrates, however, the deep pain felt by many abandoned children, especially those adopted into different cultures.
And Sunée reinforces another timeless lesson, one that our celebrity-drunk society might take to heart more seriously: money isn’t everything.
But … in a way that’s hard to fathom when Sunée describes her life in an old Provençal villa, lavender swaying in the mistral outside her window …
Chilled Blueberry Soup
Add 1 or 2 teaspoons of this to a glass of Champagne or Prosecco for a sweet summer sparkler. You could also use it to top crêpes, pancakes, or ice cream. Serve for dessert in chilled espresso cups.
6 cups fresh blueberries, divided, or 2 (12-ounce) bags frozen blueberries
1/2 cup liquid honey
1 vanilla bean, scraped, or 1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons crème de cassis
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Garnish: lemon or orange zest, crème fraîche
Rinse blueberries and place all but 1 cup in a large pot. Add cloves and stir in honey. Split vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape seeds into pot using tip of knife, and add scraped bean halves (or scrape cinnamon into pot and add stick). Add 1 cup water and stir. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer about 10 minutes. Strain, using back of spoon to crush berries, through a fine sieve, into a bowl. Discard solids. Let soup cool. Stir in lemon juice, crème de cassis, and vinegar. Add more honey, as needed. Chill in refrigerator 4 hours and up to 2 days. Serve in chilled bowls with reserved 1 cup of fresh blueberries. Garnish, if desired. Makes 3 cups.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen