Kim Sunée had an interesting start in life. She was abandoned at the age of three in a market in Korea, adopted by an American couple, and grew up in New Orleans. That would probably have been enough for an interesting memoir, but she also traveled all over the world, in search of her roots and her self, living in Sweden, France, and northern Africa and eventually visiting Korea. Throughout the very different chapters of her life, food is a common thread of comfort and pleasure.
Growing up in New Orleans, you can’t help but see food as an essential ingredient to life and love, and Kim had loving grandparents whose cooking filled her childhood with happy memories. Despite that love, she still felt like a misfit growing up, like she was different from all those around her (even her adopted sister, also from Korea), with an empty space inside where her history should be. To fill that emptiness, she left home as a young woman, living in Sweden and France, going to school, and working as a translator, all the while searching for home and her own identity.
Much of the book focuses on her relationship with Olivier, a wealthy, older French businessman (founder of L’Occitaine) with an eight-year old daughter. They meet in Sweden and live first in his country house in Provence and later in an apartment in Paris.
What I loved about this book was its focus on food. From the traditional Cajun/Creole dishes her grandfather makes to the Swedish food of her adopted father’s culture to the sensual pleasures of French meals, Sunée’s descriptions of food are enticing, and she includes recipes for a wide variety of dishes. I was especially taken with her depictions of the landscapes of Provence and the southern French coast, as well as the fresh, seasonal foods cooked simply for their friends and family; I would love to have been a guest at their large wooden table in Provence!
More than halfway through the book, however, I found her narrative becoming a bit tiresome. After she leaves Olivier, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface – she felt trapped by his wealth and expectations and was, after all, only in her 20’s. She needed to find some purpose to her life, which is completely understandable, but she falls into a pattern of self-pity, melancholy, and aimlessness that is far less interesting to read about. Although she is somewhat happier by the end of the book, there is not a lot of resolution. I would have liked to hear how she transitioned from that directionless state to her current role (as I read in a bio) as food editor of Cottage Living in Birmingham, Alabama.
All in all, I was glad to have listened to this memoir. However, this is one of those books where I’m torn over whether to recommend the audio or the paper version. The author read it herself, which I felt added to the experience of hearing her unique story. On the downside, listening to a recipe isn’t very helpful; it would be nice to have the hard copy for the recipes (though some of them included such exotic ingredients that I probably couldn’t make them myself anyway). All in all, a mostly worthwhile read for those who enjoy memoirs, travel, and food writing.
400 pages, Grand Central Publishing; audio by Books on Tape, Inc.