[Book Excerpt] Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home

In this excerpt from her adoption memoir, Kim Sunée describes her memories of food with her birth mother, and how new food helped her bond with her adoptive family.

Adoption Memoir

November 1973 was when I first got lucky. I was a scrawny three-year-old sitting on a bench in a South Korean marketplace waiting for Omma to come back and take me home. My omma, my mother, had left me a tiny fistful of food that had crumbled in the three days and nights of waiting — endless hours of darkness with huge shadows and no promise of return.

When local policemen finally brought me into the station, I shook my clenched fist at them. As they proceeded with abandonment papers, I scrambled to the ground to gather the crumbs, insisting: She told me not to leave. She promised she’d be back.

Of course, I don’t remember everything. The policemen, for example — shady contributors to my first days as an orphan — are figures I am told existed, like in any ordinary fairy tale. But I wonder how they could have left a child alone for three days and nights. I imagine it was a time of survival for most. It was the early seventies, in a country still searching for an identity after decades of war and division. There were lots of us, abandoned or lost, and perhaps many, like myself, still questioning where it is we’re really from.

Although memories are distorted, there are true sensations one doesn’t forget, like fear and hunger, deep rumblings echoing in a cavernous heart and belly. I still see rat-colored streets, try to focus in on market vendors, the swift movements of street cooks; I am forever trying to decipher a familiar face. I want warmth and a mouthful of hot fermented cabbage, a bowl of plain rice.

Nightmares sometimes help discern what’s true and false. My Korean brother, I remember as younger but taller, huddles over me as we look out over the busy streets of our village. His skin is smooth and warm and glows golden, like the color of the moon in cold months. Below, women waddle back and forth, carrying baskets of fruit on their heads all day long. We take turns standing guard, searching for our omma among them — we are convinced our mother is one of the fruit ladies. But it gets dark fast, and the house fills up with damp shadows before we can even sense her shape.

In a letter dated 1973 or 1974, my adoptive mother writes to her family back in New Orleans that she and my father, on leave from Okinawa, have decided to adopt an infant girl. A newborn, abandoned on a doorstep. But, she writes, there is also another child who comes every day and jumps in our laps. I am the other girl. My mother continues to explain that I was found on a bench in the marketplace, cigarette burns stamped into my arms and shoulders. When the policemen finally brought me into the station, I told them defiantly that I was three years old, that I was called Chong Ae Kim and was waiting for my mother to return. I held up a scarred fist smeared with soot and starch and shook it at them. “She’s only 23 pounds, but perhaps she is older, because they say she speaks a strange yet beautiful Korean.” The curious thing, my mother concludes, is they reported that I never cried.

Somewhere in the world is a man who sized me up, measured me, and estimated my bones — a type of carbon dating for lost children. I imagine him with pen and paper, arriving at the Star of the Sea orphanage to count heartbeats, trace circles, check teeth. Maybe he added up the number of burns and bruises on my arms and neck, calculated that I wasn’t missing too many pounds, before deciding I was fit for adoption.

“Born between January and June,” the doctor announced to my soon-to-be parents. Maybe a Pisces?

He validated me and decided my place among the stars. My birth date is a compromise, my beginnings a constellation of in-betweens and connect-the-dots. Since the approximate age of three, I’ve been a fish and swimming upstream ever since. There is no room for tears. Instead, I swim holding my breath. I’ve learned to ration the air, so vital for when I return to the surface of the sea, when it is safe to drift near the coastline of a warm and secure body.


My early memories are always related to hunger. My grandmother has told me this story many times over the years.

“Your refrigerator smells like Korea,” I tell Grammy, plugging my nose. “Pee-you, it stinks.”

My new grandmother laughs, sticks her head in, and pulls out a rotting pineapple from the fruit drawer. I shove my way in, too. I want to smell Korea.

“She’s so little, and look how she squats, just like in the Orient,” Dad remarks. “They say their muscle structure is different.”

I only hear “different” and plop down, butterfly style, on the kitchen floor in front of the open refrigerator. If it smells like Korea, maybe there are others who squat different like me in there. It’s cool inside, with lots of colors I don’t have words for yet. I try the new ones my grandmother tries to teach me: hot dog, Cool Whip, Tabasco.

“What would you like, Kim Sune?” She pronounces my name slowly, like the new words she teaches me, words from books and magazines with shiny pictures of people with big creases down the middle of the page; it tears their smiles in two.

I point to a bowl of lump crabmeat because I worked real hard to help Poppy dig it out of its shell. It smells like the sea, and lights like pearls.

Everything in my new world seems shiny and palatable, especially my new favorite color. The bright red on my tennis shoes suddenly makes me run real fast. Orange red is the color of fire under the pots and peppers of all shapes and sizes. Some become a liquid called Tabasco, from Avery Island, others get ground into a dark magical powder with the beautiful name of “cayenne.”

“Mirliton, okra, sassafras,” my grandfather booms like a marching band leader. “These are the words you need to learn.”

My little sister, Suzy, and I follow him with metal lids and spoons accompanying his orders: “Cayenne [boom!], crawfish [clack!], blue crabs [ding!].”

I gobble all the new words and sounds I can manage at one time, because when my new grandfather speaks, I listen. Poppy, a native New Orleanian, seems always to talk about things that are important. “The trinity,” he says solemnly. “Onion, bell pepper, celery.”

He hands me the crisp, ribbed stalks that I discover always hide an exquisite, tender heart. I stand for hours in the kitchen as he stirs, chops, fries. The day he proclaims me his official taster, I know I am the luckiest child in the world. I will myself to never again think about the dark and hollow streets I dream of at night, but I know it’s impossible.

I run around the house singing, Omma, Abba, kundungi. This makes everyone in my new family laugh, but I don’t know whats so funny about Mama, Papa, bottom. I like to sleep on the floor next to Grammy’s side of the bed and feel the cool air from the ceiling fan against my face. I close my eyes, though, real tight before the dark comes into the room and makes things move like famished giants. I dream a lot. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. Nightmare. It’s not a beautiful word, like mirliton or gumbo, but it’s a real word, and I need it so they can understand why I am so afraid, especially of the night.

Nightmare about the rat and the woman who carries fruit on her head all day long. It’s the chop, chop noise of Korean helicopters hovering low in the sky. Nightmare’s when the dark comes home faster than Omma does and it’s cold on the floor and I’m too small to shut the door by myself. I feel lucky when I dream about my brother, because he taught me how to hold my eyes closed real tight. I know he is real. He has hair like me, squats like me, and smells like Grammy’s refrigerator.

Sundays, as we head out of the Lutheran church on the corner of Port and Burgundy, Poppy or my mother invites anyone who seems lonely or the slightest bit capable of appreciating a home-cooked meal to have dinner with us. Friends stop by to order a pound of crabmeat salad, a dozen garlic-and-herb-stuffed artichokes.

Other friends beg for jars of his famous crawfish bisque made with Binder’s French bread that he fries off in a big cast-iron skillet with garlic and spices. The crawfish heads have been pulled and cleaned at the most recent seafood boil, and the sweet tail meat gets chopped and stirred into the stuffing. To eat this fragrant stew, we ladle heaping portions over hot boiled rice and use the tips of our tongues to scoop out the stuffing from the heads. I don’t know how to say it yet, but I want this heat, this unprecedented sweetness, to nourish me the rest of my life.

Everyone says Poppy should open a restaurant. But money and fame don’t matter to him. He loves feeding his family and watching as Suzy and I stand in the kitchen waiting for him to finish adding a squeeze of lemon to the whole-roasted redfish, a sprinkle of hot sauce to the dirty rice. Then, just when we can’t stand it anymore, he sneaks us a taste before serving steaming portions to everyone. Our grandfather sits at the head of the table, leaning back in his chair, his hands folded across his round belly, a smile across his face, spreading out to the corners of his bright blue eyes.

Suzy and I are the only Oriental girls, as we are called, in our school, so the comfort of Poppy’s kitchen after school every day, the promise of his home-cooked meals, are a refuge, a safe place where our grandparents nourish us — solid food to remind us that we exist, that we live in a new world where we have not been forgotten.

Quick-Fix Kimchi

Korean cuisine — hearty, rustic, and beautiful — shines as the unsung hero of Asian cooking. A variety of vegetables, pickled, packed, and buried in the earth, is a traditional accompaniment. I could never pretend to prepare them the way Korean cooks do, but I make this express version of cabbage kimchi — sometimes adding, or substituting for the cabbage, sliced cucumbers, zucchini, or bean sprouts — whenever I long for a spicy hit of Korea.

  • 1 small head Napa cabbage
  • 1/4 cup sea salt
  • 1 (4-inch) piece fresh ginger, minced or grated
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons hot red chili paste (or Sriracha or sambal oelek)
  • 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sesame or walnut oil
  • 1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce or 2 crushed anchovies
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or honey
  • 3 to 4 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 small head escarole, frise, or Romaine, torn or chopped

Remove outer leaves of cabbage, quarter lengthwise, core bottoms, and cut across into 1-inch pieces. Place in a colander in sink and sprinkle with salt. Let sit 45 minutes to 1 hour. Rinse and dry cabbage thoroughly, preferably using a salad spinner (otherwise, the kimchi will be watery). Whisk together ginger and next 8 ingredients in a large bowl. Add cabbage, escarole, and toss to combine. Pack kimchi in a glass jar or bowl. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours and up to 2 weeks. Serve with steamed rice, grilled meat, on sandwiches, or stirred into soups.

From the book Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home, by  Kim Sunée (kimsunee.com). Copyright 2008 by Kim Sunée. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


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