Life-Changing Cookbooks: Moomins Cookbook: An Introduction to Finnish Cuisine

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Life-Changing Cookbooks: <i>Moomins Cookbook: An Introduction to Finnish Cuisine</i>

The cover of Moomins Cookbook: An Introduction to Finnish Cuisine is bright magenta and blue, and features an image of the Moomins crushing apples into jam through an orange machine. Moominmamma, her eyes closed, is meditative; the others, wondrously surprised. Written by Sami Malila and filled with illustrations by Tove Jansson, the late creator of the Moomins, it would be unfair to deem the book’s title a misnomer—it is a primer on Finnish cuisine. There are recipes for a blackcurrant juice best made with berries from the forest, a “Herring for Stormy Weather,” and fish solyanka, simmered in tomato puree and served with sour cream. I live in Miami, where I can certainly make but would never find rhubarb kissel or intentionally soured milk.

Familiarizing the reader with Nordic food, however, isn’t the point (hence the countryless nougat milkshakes and “supper sandwiches”). The book’s intention, rather, is to pay homage to the Moomins, a family of round, hippopotamic creatures with soft voices and softer bellies. They first appeared in Jansson’s 1945 book The Moomins and the Great Flood, a precursor to what would become a massive franchise. Moomintroll, the protagonist, is a sweet boy who—like his family and friends—lives in harmony with the seasons. He hibernates in winter and eats pancakes with abandon, reveling in the simplicity of the countryside, sometimes navigating the tenuous space between home and very far. If the Moomins are adventurous sorts—and they are, often finding themselves on perilous seas or in the depths of the woods—it is less the excitement of travel than the warmth of returning home they like best.

And so it’s this—the comforts of living close to the land and closer to your friends—that the Moomins Cookbook is really about. It’s testament to the sincerity of the Moomins, of Jansson herself, that the book is never cloying, only straightforward: the “Cook’s Tips” suggests you “read through the recipe before going to the shop … what a terrible nuisance it is to have to run back to the shop…” A charmingly unnecessary recipe for tea ends, sweetly, “The best thing you can add to a cup of tea is whatever you like the most.” The book’s subtitle is “Everything fun is good for the stomach.”

My first exposure to the strange loveliness of their world was a 1990 Japanese-Finnish cartoon series, Moomin, the Moomins’ third anime adaptation. The show’s themes were equally cosmic (there’s an entire episode, “The Midwinter Bonfire,” about communing with ancestral spirits) and grounded—even Moominpappa suffers from writers’ block. They also love to eat and drink: tea, berries, milk, bread. In one episode, Moominmamma packs the kitchen for a boat trip, because traveling is always better with pancakes.

It’s difficult to describe the importance with which I imbue cartoons and, generally, the stuff of childhood. When you’re a sensitive and troubled child, your voice is defined by the people who in equal strides must understand and speak for you. By virtue of being puzzling, you are reduced to your explicability, however dubious. Memories are shaped, then, not just experientially, but tangentially, along the story arcs of others’ experiences. I did not so much as have trouble reading as I did irritate a teacher; I did not simply cry when adults laughed too loudly, but rendered the room suddenly silent. I became, slowly, my effects on everyone else.

My trajectory to adulthood has been, then, like a flip book, some movement occurring but the imagery not changing much. I’m still worrisome and uncomfortable, still profoundly protective of my solitude; my scoliosis has, I think, gotten worse. My childhood insecurities have remained, as have their temporary antidotes. This is why the aesthetics of childhood are unfailingly soothing—cartoons are universal mythologies in which I might get happily lost.

One thing has changed: I can cook now, a little. For a long time, I was fearful of adulthood’s exigencies, mostly because growing up is not something others can do for you. When you’ve accidentally lived through others, there’s nothing to which you might tether yourself when you’re suddenly an adult, and simple tasks seem disproportionately challenging. Cooking within these parameters, you become your own sort of mother, surrounding yourself with the comforts of childhood while bravely miming womanhood.

Moomins Cookbook, devoid of food trends and shameless in its emphasis on sticky sweetness (honey sandwiches, berry soup, so many pies), eases the reader into self-sufficiency with a patience as merciful and tender as Moominmamma’s. Of the book’s recipes, I’ve made only the simplest (Moominpappa’s Onion Omelette), but read the insets—whimsical quotes from the Moomins books—religiously. Ever anxious, the practice of mindfulness eludes me, but they’re reminders to slow down, even while I’m growing up, an act that feels, at once, like a biological inevitably and an intentional practice. Consider the musings of Moominmamma (then known as “mother”), placed next to a recipe for cauliflower soup:

And so mother began gathering seaweed. All day she carried it back to the glen, which little by little she was turning into her new garden…She was dreaming of her carrots, her radishes and potatoes, how they would grow large and round in the warmth…All this would not be ready until the following summer, but that did not mean a thing. Mother had something to dream about. And the most secret of her dreams was an apple tree all of her own.

Photo by whity, CC BY 2.0