How 'The Moomins,' a Cult-Favorite Finnish-Japanese Cartoon, Does Breakfast
All the pancakes, please
The Moomins, a wildly and internationally popular family of soft, hippopotamic creatures, originated in Finland in 1945, introduced in books and comics by writer/illustrator Tove Jansson. Moomintroll, the protagonist, lives in Moominvalley with Snork Maiden (his girlfriend), Moominmamma, Moominpappa, and their friends—family friend Sniff, the curmudgeonly Little My, and a slew of others—all with wisdom to offer. Jansson wrote the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, during World War II; she’d later say that the book was meant to counter the horrors of the war.
The Moomin books were hits—Jansson became the most successful Finnish children’s book writer at the time—and several of them were bestsellers, particularly in Finland. The “Moomin Boom” didn’t happen until the 1990s, following the premiere of an animated series, Moomin (or Tales From Moominvalley) by Dennis Livson and Jansson’s brother, Lars. The Moomins’ popularity quickly spread; the show sparked a merchandising industry, a set of new comics, and the opening of an adorable amusement park, Moomin World. Finnair decorated its Japan-line planes with the Moomins. These days, there are Moomin-themed “anti-loneliness” cafes in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Though they’re not nearly as popular in the U.S., that has more to do with the location of the franchise and less to do with the Moomins themselves. To understand their charm, it helps to recognize why they were so loved back home in the first place. The Moomins are awfully cute, and the life of Moomintroll is not unlike the life of other sweet cartoon heroes—the characters are adventurous sorts, and after their journeys, they consistently return to the familiarity of sitting round the table, balanced restored.
But there is a special, warm poignance to their existence. In the books, comic strips, and even the later shows, the Moomins and their ilk touch on the pain of longing, the tenderness of love, the importance of solitude, the struggle between a desire for recognition and wealth—often for one’s art—and the need for quiet dreaming. In one comic strip, Sniff insists Moomintroll produce art that’s “bewildering,” demanding, “How are you going to be rich and famous if you are not inclined?” “I don’t want to be famous,” he replies. “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!”
The Moomins would almost always prefer to plant and to eat. The simple bliss of sharing meals, whether potatoes or jam, is mentioned throughout the franchise; in the television series, food—particularly breakfast—is an accidental focal point. Their appetites are not just ongoing schticks, but a means to make them more real. Tea is constant and food is everywhere: Little My snacks on toast while the others panic. Moominmamma deliberates with a hot mug in hand and—always in an apron—never stops making pancakes. Their food obsession adds to their anthropomorphic believability. In Moominvalley, a sunny, jam-scented world, food is a predictable comfort, the kind we desire as children. Here are a few favorite instances in which the pleasure and importance of eating makes an appearance on Moomin.
Episode 4, The Moomins Discover the Island
The Moomins are gearing up for a boat trip, and Moominmamma is packing an awful lot of cookware. “You’ve got to rough it a bit if you want an adventure,” says Moominpappa. “Yes,” she replies, “but it would be more fun with coffee and pancakes.” Indeed: in boats and everywhere else.
Episode 17, A Change of Air
Moomintroll awakens to find his parents missing. Sniff’s immediate concern: “I need my breakfast. I have to start my day with a good meal.” Moomintroll, though, is too despondent to think of food. Moomintroll’s elvish best friend, Snufkin, asks, “Have you had your breakfast yet, Moomin?” “No, nothing,” Moomintroll sniffs. “It’s not the same without Mamma.” His response reflects the power of food to bring people together, and, in turn, the power of relationships in defining what we eat.
Episode 25, The Lighthouse
Beloved pancakes, again: it’s early morning, and the family hasn’t yet eaten. Preparing for another trip, Moominmamma packs “lots and lots of food”-- whole satchels of it, baguettes barely contained. Before they take off, she nearly stops in her tracks. “Oh dear,” she gasps. “I left a job of strawberry jam and a whole batch of pancakes on the table.” They’ll go without. Luckily, Sniff, who’ll be staying behind, is quite pleased.
Episode 37, The Midwinter Bonfire
Moominvalley is hibernating. There’d be nothing to do, really, but sleep, if it weren’t for Snork Maiden’s sweet tooth. Moomintroll wants an adventure, but Snork Maiden would rather rest—until she smacks her lips, dreaming of chocolate cake. She wakes her boyfriend to get a midwinter snack, and soon their day unfolds magically (spirits! bonfires! ritual!).
Episode 42, The Solar Eclipse
This breakfast moment is worth mentioning for the visual alone. Moomintroll bounds down the stairs when he realizes it’s going to be a sunny day—perfect for eclipse-watching through shards of glass. In the kitchen, Moominmamma is removing a tray of four buns from the oven. They are perfect: plump, spherical little mounds of bread, light brown on the bottom and darker on top. They almost look glazed. She sets them on a table to cool, and it’s so hard not to salivate.
Episode 49, The Giant Pumpkin
It’s a sad autumn in Moominvalley--the pumpkin crop is failing. Only one is growing, and Moominmamma hopes for the best: “I’ll be happy as long as it’s big enough to make one meal.” It grows huge enough for an entire feast--“pumpkin pie, pumpkin mousse, pumpkin soufflé, pumpkin shortbread, even pumpkin lemonade.” Much more nourishing than pumpkin-spice-anything, and homegrown, too!
Episode 56, The Secret Dish
Moominmamma’s made pancakes. “Seems to me we have them all the time,” grumbles Little My. (She’s right.) Then, Moominmamma leaves to gather rare ingredients for a special family recipe, and the household again devolves into culinary chaos. Moominpappa burns a pancake—“It’s all my own work”—and Moomintroll ruins a soup. Snork Maiden attempts to make a soup of her own, but it ends in tears.
Episode 70, Moomin’s Big Fish
After Snork Maiden prepares pancakes for the gang, Moominpappa tells her she’ll “make someone an excellent wife one day.” Little My, a total hater, replies, “Nice to know what you’re gonna get, yeah?” She’s hinting at the probable marriage between Snork Maiden and Moomintroll, yes, but she’s also referring to the frequency with which Snork Maiden’s future husband will get pancakes for breakfast.