Rewards of Hard Work
Indulging in treats and good food in general brings incredible satisfaction and happiness to one’s body. Food serves as a unifying theme between Mary Oliver’s “Sister Turtle”, Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s “Little Heathens”. Regardless of the different settings they place, “Little Heathens” and “Sister Turtle” share a love and appreciation for being able to enjoy food. Kalish’s memoir reflects on growing up during the Great Depression on a farm where she learns the importance of hard work and perseverance.
The narrator in “Sister Turtle”, however, struggles to enjoy food without feeling guilt and anxiety for succumbing to her body’s cravings. In contrast, Kafka’s hunger artist completely rejects food for the simple reason that he cannot find something tasteful. Consequently, he misses out on essential pleasures that food brings, such as happiness. People often take the luxury of cooking and eating a good meal for granted, even though putting food on the table requires hard work and perseverance.
In “Little Heathens”, “Sister Turtle” and “A Hunger Artist”, the protagonists show their consciousness of the labor involved in obtaining and preparing food as well as the different pleasures that may derive from food. Raised by a single mother during the Great Depression, Kalish realized that modern technology has led to a loss of connection to food and a convenience-oriented society. Kalish’s childhood consisted of mundane chores and arduous farm work because her family had to provide everything for themselves. The Kalish family owned four farms that served as both a blessing and a curse during difficult times.
In her adult life, Kalish has the luxury of buying food from a supermarket, using an electric stove and eating out at restaurants. As a mother of her own family, she wanted them “to be aware of the foods, the ingenuity, the knowledge, the skills, and above all, the everlasting work that was required to survive when resources and supplies were limited” (Kalish 143). Kalish never took food for granted because she grew up on a farm where she learned first hand that one needed to hard work in order “to survive when resources and supplies were limited” (Kalish 143), such as during the Great Depression.
In addition, Kalish’s memoir shows the importance of teamwork and family in order to compensate for the lack of technological devices. A self-sufficient farm, such as the one in “Little Heathens”, requires constant time consuming and arduous hard work in order to maintain it. Kalish’s memoir explains how “meal preparations demanded a ceaseless dedication of time and energy that is not readily apparent” (Kalish 117). Every family member must contribute to procuring and making food; the adults take on the bigger responsibilities such as cooking and starting fires (Kalish 105) while the children perform their daily chores.
In fact, “the continuity and stability of family life was absolutely dependent on the fact that all of us kids did the chores that were expected of us” (Kalish 104). The youngest members of the family have a tremendous amount of responsibility on their shoulders. Even though their work consists of small tasks such as “getting wood” (Kalish 104), it helps the adults a great deal because it relieves them of time consuming chores. If one person slacks, the work remains uncompleted and the whole family suffers. On the contrary, they are rewarded for their hard work at the end of the day with food on the table.
Although each member of the family has a specific role to play, most farm work requires a group endeavor. Food preparation calls for the effort of the entire family, such as picking beans and harvesting for a Thanksgiving feast. The Kalish family participates in “handpicking green beans for the canning factory in Vinton” (Kalish 107), an exhausting but rewarding task. Although it requires toiling in the bean fields for hours under the hot sun, the family members do not complain because they enjoy themselves, listening to jokes and conversations (Kalish 107).
In addition, they receive compensation, “twenty-five cents a bushel: a veritable fortune” (Kalish 107), which helps the family a great deal. Thanksgiving, an important event for the Kalish family, requires “preparations and planning…[that] began weeks before the event” (Kalish 40). This includes “gathering ground-cherries” and “cracking nuts” (Kalish 41). Everyone enjoys this special day; they cook for hours in the kitchen and then gather to eat good food. On Thanksgiving Day, the Kalish family truly appreciates being blessed with food and the good times they have in the kitchen regardless of the devastating effects of the Great Depression.
At the end of the day, the Kalish family spends time together cooking in the kitchen and enjoying the fruits of their hard work. The Kalish household revolves around the kitchen: “it was where [they] gathered for companionship and for a variety of work and leisure-time pursuits, where we ate all our meals, and where people entered the house most of the time” (Kalish 119). The kitchen serves as a haven because the “light, warmth, food, drink” (Kalish 120) raise their spirits. The family dedicates most of the day to performing mundane farm chores in the fields.
However, the kitchen work, such as baking, boiling water and cooking meals, allows for time to bond and create memories. The fondest times Kalish reflects upon in the memoir include cooking alongside her mother and aunt. She can recall the specific measurements used in the recipe of a “favorite corn dishes…succotash” (Kalish 124). Furthermore, Kalish associates Saturday nights and Aunte Belle with “chocolate fudge, penuche and popcorn” (Kalish 32). These nights involve eating, conversing and learning poems. Kalish appreciates her childhood and the influences in her life.
An overlooked but essential part of life, food, defines Kalish’s childhood but it also helps her adult life. She shows her connection of food and consciousness that some simple pleasures, such as satisfying one’s appetite and feeling a sense of accomplishment, come from hard work. In contrast to the demanding lifestyle on a farm, the protagonist of “Sister Turtle” spends her time observing nature and trying to decide whether her loyalty lies with her mind or with her body. She feels lost; should she satisfy her meat eating appetite or not?
Rather than hunting game, the protagonist watches animals interact in nature and craves their fresh meat to satisfy her body. She feels conflicted because “[her] great ones…have taught [her] – to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always care-ingly” (Oliver 20). With these guidelines, she lives peacefully with nature and therefore becomes more aware of her surroundings. The protagonist shows her consciousness of the “miraculous interchange that make things work, that causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past” (Oliver 14).
Everything in Nature takes part in the cycle, where a body is sacrificed in order to move forward in life. Feeding her body and being “devoted to Nature” (Oliver 14) are both natural acts, but should she listen to her mind or her body? This ongoing dilemma within herself forces the protagonist to analyze food carefully, which takes hard work and patience. The turtles, especially their eggs, fascinate her and test her self-control. She watches them work every day and eventually digs up the eggs and eats them. Part of her motivation stems from curiosity, but the predator part wants them just to satisfy her body.
She “dug in the sand to the depth of nine inches more or less” (Oliver 21), trying to find the small turtle eggs. After she successfully uncovers them, she feels the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction: “I scrambled them. They were a meal. Not too wonderful, not too bad. Rich, substantial” (Oliver 21). Acquiring these eggs took the protagonist a significant amount of time, from studying the turtles’ habits to digging for them. Completely aware of the effects of her actions, “[she] ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect” (Oliver 22).
Not only does she find pleasure in the food itself, but eating also brings about a sense of victory and peace. She finally decides that “[the body], which must be fed, will be well fed” (Oliver 22) and learns that natures cycle benefits everyone who takes part in it. The protagonist in “Sister Turtle” demonstrates perseverance and hard work, which allows for rewards such as food and an understanding of her body. On the contrary to “Little Heathens” and “Sister Turtle”, the hunger artist rejects food and rather than laboring in fields like the townspeople, he sits in a cage.
His profession believes fasting stages a great performance and it disappoints his honor to even “swallow the smallest morsel of food” (Kafka 1). The hunger artist enjoys the attention of being a celebrity in the town, but he does nothing while bystanders glance at his frightening “skeleton thinness” (Kafka 2). Unlike the protagonists in “Little Heathens” and “Sister Turtle”, the hunger artist does not work hard; he “[knew] how easy it was to fast” (Kafka 2). He lives life with relative “ease” for he has no responsibilities and does not contribute to the economy like the townspeople do.
The hunger artist finds self-expression through the art form of fasting more important than embracing essential parts of life like food. As a consequence of refusing to eat, the hunger artist leads an angry and unfulfilling life. He misses out on the pleasure and excitement from consuming good food. Furthermore, he alienates himself when he joins a circus, only to sit in another cage (Kafka 4). As a result, he lashes out and expresses his anger “with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal” (Kakfa 3).
He feels cheated of his fame and exercises no patience for people who do not understand him. For example, the impresario sells photographs of the hunger artist that show him “almost dead from exhaustion” (Kafka 3). The hunger artist wants to fight back against this “perversion of the truth” (Kafka 4) about his profession. He constantly feels irritated and impatient because he cannot relate to others in the community who enjoy working hard to produce their own food. Not only does the hunger artist occasionally lash out in frustration, but he also feels dissatisfied.
The hunger artist strives for only one thing in life: the admiration of others. Kafka portrays him as a weak character that feels “cheated” in life (Kakfa 6). The majority of people in the town, such as the butchers, have to work hard to provide resources for the town and put food on their own table at home. The hunger artist, however, does not take on these responsibilities and does not see the importance of food. Therefore, “he was never satisfied” (Kafka 2). In the end, the hunger artist finally admits his reasoning behind fasting: “I couldn’t find the food I liked.
If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else” (Kafka 6). His body rejects food because his mind tells him it is not worthwhile since he does not like anything. The hunger artist’s life is marked by anger, frustration and melancholy because he fails to appreciate and see the importance of food as the protagonists do in “Little Heathens” and “Sister Turtle”. Kalish quickly adapts to modern technology in her adult life, but realizes in her memoir that her upbringing on a farm has made a more mature person who appreciates life and food.
The protagonist in “Sister Turtle” does not let her mind or body overtake the other. Regardless of how she decides to live her life, whether to eat meat or not, she is conscious of the work required to produce the food she consumes. The hunger artist never understands the simple rewards food brings and therefore, he is never satisfied and happy. Often taken for granted since it is part of one’s daily routine, food can only be achieved through hard work and perseverance, which Kalish, Mary Oliver and Kalish demonstrate in their works.