“Now, Snowy, we’ll have something to eat …” (The Shooting Star, p. 50, frame 1)
Tintin eats simply and often sparingly. He rarely takes pleasure in food. Dining is a necessary means of social interaction, it facilitates conversation and advances Tintin’s pursuit of a mystery. Tintin eats when others do, and usually eats what they do, focusing on the conversation rather than the food itself. Food is fuel for Tintin. His appetite is driven by what his body needs and what is available at the time. Rarely does Tintin talk of food, or even seem to look forward to eating. Tintin stands in stark contrast to his companions Snowy and Captain Haddock, who are far more sensualist, driven by impulse and immediate gratification.
To start the day, Tintin usually prefers simple Continental breakfasts, whether dining alone or with others. A typical breakfast is a slice of bread with jam, and a cup of coffee of tea, either while dining alone in his apartment or with Haddock at Marlinspike. (The Broken Ear, p. 9, frame 3; The Calculus Affair, p. 11, frames 6-7) Whatever the case, he often doesn’t seem to be enjoying the meal but rather is focused on pursuing an unfolding mystery: the death of an artist in the case of The Broken Ear, unexplained glass breakages in The Calculus Affair.
Staying at Professor Tarragon’s house while investigating an apparent curse striking South American explorers, Tintin enjoys what is probably his most elaborate breakfast spread: a hard boiled egg, toast (all of which he has eaten), a fruit bowl consisting of apples, pears and grapes, and tea. Even here, however, he is focused on reading the newspaper in pursuit of the mystery, and ignores most of the food. (The Seven Crystal Balls, p. 48, frame 9)
Similarly, after being rescued from a makeshift raft in the Red Sea, his fellow victims Haddock and Skut dig into a hearty feast of roast chicken and wine, but Tintin ignores the food, more interested in analyzing the situation they find themselves in. (The Red Sea Sharks, p. 40, frame 12)
In the course of his adventures, Tintin frequently finds himself in survival mode, driven by his quests: chasing a spy, safeguarding a meteorite, wandering in the desert. It is here that we find the core of Tintin’s food ethos: Food is fuel, he eats what he can immediately obtain, focusing on his mission rather than his comfort.
Tintin brings honey sandwiches on a hike in the rugged terrain outside the Moon rocket base. These make for efficient if simple sustenance for his mission—standing watch for saboteurs. However, he winds up disposing of most of them, as they attract a mass of bear cubs. (Destination Moon, pp. 20-21)
Detained in Syldavia for alleged subversion, Tintin and Snowy escape and walk several miles to the capital to alert the king of an impending plot. A hungry Snowy constantly asks, “When are we going to eat?” and even steals a dinosaur bone from a museum in an attempt to tide himself over. Only after finishing his mission, warning the king’s aide de camp, does Tintin say, “Now for a meal, Snowy!” (King Ottokar’s Sceptre, pp. 33-36)
Later, pursuing the thief of the king’s scepter overnight and overland across rugged terrain and over the border from Syldavia into Borduria, Tintin serendipitously obtains a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine from border guards. The bottle is shot out of his hands, but he stuffs a few pieces of bread into his mouth as he flees from his pursuers. (King Ottokar’s Sceptre, p. 54, frames 1-6)
Pursuing two forgers through the dining car of an English train, Snowy manages to appropriate a roast chicken. He and Tintin share it shortly afterwards as they hobo on another train into Scotland. Ever generous, Tintin seems to give most of the chicken to Snowy. (The Black Island, pp. 32-33)
Tintin similarly improvises meals in other adventures. Barricading himself in the hold of a ship, he discovers tins of crab and champagne in the hold, which he tries to subsist on. (The Crab with the Golden Claws, p. 13) While safeguarding a meteorite overnight, Tintin subsists on the airplane’s emergency rations: a maggot-filled apple, some biscuits that he shares with Snowy, and a flask of water. (The Shooting Star, p. 50) Lost in the desert, Tintin survives on dates and spring water from an oasis. (The Land of Black Gold, pp. 23-24)
(Although outside the scope of this article, because it concerns drink and not food, it is worth noting that Tintin sometimes displays poor judgment when trying to subsist on what is available. When he, Haddock and Skut are stranded on a makeshift raft in the Red Sea, Tintin advocates drinking seawater: “Try some, Captain. It’s not as bad as all that.” Haddock declines, and Skut finds it “not good.” (The Red Sea Sharks, p. 37, frame 1))
When snacking, Tintin opts for the healthier option, usually a local fruit. Characteristically, he snacks more to pass the time while waiting for his circumstances to resolve themselves, rather than out of hunger. While stuck at a train station in India, he buys and eats a banana. (Cigars of the Pharaoh, p. 49, frame 1) Calmly waiting his being burnt alive at the Inca Temple of the Sun, he has a yellow-orange fruit, possibly a guava or custard apple. (Prisoners of the Sun, p. 54, frames 1-2)
One hallmark of Tintin’s eating habits is that, while dining with others, he invariably eats the same food as they do. He is not fussy or particular, and takes what is provided. By doing so, he demonstrates his courtesy, his respect for others, and also creates a sense of intimacy.
Sailing to a crashed meteorite, he dines on the same plain mashed potatoes and sliced bread as the rest of the expedition (Snowy having eaten all the sausages that were to be the centerpiece of lunch). (The Shooting Star, p. 23, frame 8) Travelling to the Moon—a mere 40 minutes away from their destination in fact—Tintin serves his fellow explorers a small meal, consisting of tea or coffee, bread and jam, complete with china and silverware. (Explorers on the Moon, p. 18, frame 6) Trekking up to the site of a plane crash in Tibet, he dines on the same tsampa (cooked barley meal with tea and butter) as the Sherpa and porters. (Tintin in Tibet, pp. 22-23)
Tintin accepts a meal with locals in an Arumbaya village, partly out of hospitality. “You may not fancy this very much,” the explorer Ridgewell tells him, “but pretend to like it: it’s important not to offend them.” Tintin finds the food intolerably hot but graciously declares it “absolutely stunning.” (Tintin and the Picaros, pp. 33-34)
Tintin’s meals usually are simple, arguably unsophisticated and unadventurous. There are a few notable exceptions. One of the most famous dishes Tintin eats is also one of the most exotic, and yet the circumstances of the meal are entirely characteristic of Tintin. He enters a Syldavian restaurant near his flat in pursuit of a suspicious person, and takes a table. Apparently picking randomly off the menu, he orders a plate of szlaszeck and a glass of szpradj. Tintin calls the meal excellent—a rare instance of allowing himself pleasure—and when hearing it consists of a dog’s hind leg, he is shocked only because he fears Snowy may be an ingredient. (King Ottokar’s Sceptre, p. 5)
Another rare example of Tintin eating exotic food, and taking pleasure in obtaining it, is from his early trip to the Congo. Here, he unwittingly slaughters over a dozen antelope, but rationalizes it by saying, “Anyway, we’ll have fresh meat this evening!” (Tintin in the Congo, Casterman edition, np) Of course, Tintin is still an evolving personality in this early story, which is uncharacteristic of later adventures in many ways.
Tintin rarely allows himself to enjoy, let alone eat, food. This is of course entirely consistent with his character: frugal, generous, focused on a wider goal such as a mystery or the welfare of others. So when he does, it is a moment to relish. One of his greatest and most personal adventures, Tintin in Tibet, opens with him and Snowy returning to an Alpine hotel after a day hike in the mountains. “It’s been a long day,” he tells Snowy. “I’m not sorry to be back at the hotel. I’m as hungry as a hunter.” Only now, at the end of an arduous day, does Tintin—ever the hunter, the pursuer, the adventurer—give in to his hunger. (Tintin in Tibet, p. 1, frame 3)
Hergé’s work of course focused on the adventures and the mysteries, and much less so on the quiet moments in between. Therefore food occupies a back seat to the main story. But when food does make an appearance, it offers important insights into Tintin’s personality.
That concludes the meal portion of our excursion. There still are the drinks, which occupy a far more important role in Tintin’s adventures. And after Captain Haddock appeared on the scene, well, that is a whole other story …
Text © Christopher Weeks. Used by permission.