Beth Ann Fennelly Digs into Geophagy

By  Beth Ann Fennelly |  March 8, 2010

I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't help myself. I was curious: too curious. Finally, late one night, I returned to a website I'd bookmarked, one which promised "discrete shipping on all orders." I placed the illicit item in my shopping cart. Confirm purchase? You betcha. And so I took one small step closer to full membership in my adopted home, my quest to be a Southerner. I would eat dirt.

Not that dirt-eating—also known as geophagy—is limited to the South, of course. The practice has been found in all continents, in various peoples, even in animals. And in all times: Apparently, people have been eating the earth since they've been walking the earth. Clays meant for consumption have been discovered at sites occupied by early humans. Historical references date as far back as Aristotle and Hippocrates of Kos (460–377 B.C.), who warned that "if a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things." Traditionally, Haitian women dry mud cookies on their roofs. Clay eaters in Africa purchase their chosen variety in open-air markets and keep it in cloth belts, close at hand. In India, where Mahatma Gandhi advocated geophagy to cleanse the body, people have been known to drink tea from newly formed clay cups—and then eat the cups. 

In the U.S., geophagy has become associated with pregnant women—especially African-American ones—in poor, rural areas. Scholars such as Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis Frate consider geophagy a culture transfer from Africa; slaves brought the habit with them to plantations, where it became known as Cachexia Africana. Plantation owners became concerned when slaves who ate too much clay acted lethargic, and some owners went so far as to force their slaves to wear face masks. Yet while it is true that overindulging can indeed lead to anemia, intestinal blockages, and ruptured colons, Vermeer and Frate find it more likely that malnutrition, not geophagy, was responsible for the slaves' ill health. And despite the slave owners' vigilance, the practice remained, and spread to poor whites as well, as suggested by a nickname for South Carolinians, "Sandlappers." My husband tells me his relations (poor white Alabamians) ate the clay mortar grouting the stones of the hearth at the family's home, the "Old Place"—weakening the structure until it threatened to collapse. 

Geophagy's a dying tradition now. Due to the stigma attached, what remains has gone underground: Vermeer tells of the nurse in Holmes County, Mississippi, who pulled him aside one day to confess, "I just wanted you to know that I am also a practitioner." How much of the population shares her guilty habit is hard to determine; according to Susan Allport, author of "Women Who Eat Dirt" in GASTRONOMICA, "In the 1970s, fifty percent of Black women admitted to eating clay, about four times the frequency among white women," but notes the percentage has since dropped. Vermeer hypothesizes that between thirty and fifty percent of pregnant African-American women in the rural South consume clay. 

That geophagy is a habit of indigent Southerners perhaps explains why it has such negative connotations. Geophagy is a subset of pica, a word that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird known for its indiscriminate diet. The American Psychiatric Association defines pica as "persistent eating of non-nutritive substances that is inappropriate to development level" and "occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice." No wonder the habit has gone underground, then; who would ask their doctor about its effects when Alexander Woywodt, M.D., writes starchily in 2002 in the JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF MEDICINE that "concealment of the aberrant eating behavior is an important issue. The diagnosis commonly emerges when a patient is accidentally discovered during a 'binge' of geophagia. Abdominal radiography can be of great help in the occasional patient who denies the habit"?

Perhaps because there's no money to be made from advocating either for, or against, the eating of dirt, geophagy is ill-understood by the medical community. In fact, not only do doctors disagree about whether it's healthy or harmful, they disagree about why people do it. This much we do know: Cravings are site-specific, which is to say, only a certain location yields the desired flavor and texture. The nineteenth-century Otomac tribe of South America preferred a fine red clay and would hike long distances to obtain it. North Carolinians, as historian Hilda Hertz reported in her 1947 "Notes on Clay and Starch Eating Among Negroes in a Southern Urban Community," prefer smooth white clay. The residents of Holmes County, Mississippi, prefer "hill dirt" to Delta dirt, and Frate tells of the popularity of a certain hill he visited where he found cars lined up "like at a drive-in bank." Nonhuman animals also demonstrate the same highly selective connoisseurship. East African elephants and the mountain gorillas of Rwanda return every year to particular sites. The Peruvian Amazon scarlet macaws eat only a certain band of exposed clay in a bend of the Manu River—so loyal are the birds that these sites "attract 4,000 bird watching tourists each year," according to UCLA evolutionary biologist Jared M. Diamond. 

What's the dirt? We know that practitioners aren't running out into the garden to lap up any old surface mulch. It's pretty much the opposite of what Gabriel García Márquez describes in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, where a woman in love

got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells.

Preferred clay is usually located in a band beneath ground level, and as such uncontaminated with manure, parasites, or pesticides. Sometimes such a subsoil band will be exposed along a river bed or, in contemporary times, through construction. Digging for clay in roadbanks has caused enough damage in some cases, according to Vermeer, to prompt the highway department to post signs requesting locals to stop digging.  

While sometimes such clay is eaten right at the "dirt-hole," often it is stockpiled and baked into hard nuggets for gnawing, sometimes seasoned. Packages—with the clay's origin clearly marked—are sold even today across the South, in convenience stores.  Southern women who migrate north find themselves dirt-poor in a new way—and then send letters to relatives pleading for shipments. Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, says it may be apocryphal but he's heard "the post office in Anguilla was shipping huge volumes of clay up north." John B. Strait, geographer at Sam Houston State University, told me that he's tasted clay from Midnight, Mississippi, and The Plains, Georgia, in Otha's Soul Food on Chicago's South Side. "It wasn't bad," he e-mailed. "I had it with some vinegar and pepper, like one would eat with cucumbers."

Is geophagy an illness or an affirming cultural practice? Experts disagree. Even the NEW YORK TIMES can only conclude, "Why hundreds of millions of people and dozens of animal species consume earth remains a mystery, and information about the health effects is contradictory and incomplete." Every expert I spoke to disagreed with the others, but there are, to my count, five main theories.

The first theory is that pica satisfies hunger. Here we might look to the heroine of Pearl Buck's 1931 novel, THE GOOD EARTH, set during the reign of the last emperor of China, who serves her starving children "the good earth." There are similar historical cases—after a seventeenth-century famine in England, a Saxony official reported that "people finally started baking this earth and...the hill containing this white earth was undermined and collapsed killing five." But it's also true that geophagy exists in times of plenty.    

Another hypothesis suggests that people ingest earth to gain minerals lacking in their diets. This theory helps account for earth-eating among pregnant women, whose nutritional needs are greater. Jared M. Diamond found that "soils sold in Ghanaian markets to pregnant African women are richer in iron and copper than the dietary supplement pills made by pharmaceutical companies specifically for prenatal use." Susan Allport notes that pregnant women in Africa often visit termite mounds, which "are rich in both calcium and iron and supply a woman who eats at least twenty grams a day with more than one hundred percent of her RDA for iron." Animals, too, such as monkeys, take iron supplements in the form of clay. The only problem with this tidy theory is that subsoils differ so much in mineral quality and composition. In fact, for every pregnant woman who staves off anemia through clay, there might be a woman who induces anemia from clay, as it can bind with iron molecules and prevent their absorption. 

A third theory argues that clay can neutralize poisons, especially in plants that have evolved toxins to prevent being eaten. This explains, perhaps, how the wild Andes potato became domesticated. The wild potato is toxic, but ethnobotanists have seen Andes Indians dipping the potatoes in a slurry of wet clay (essentially mud) while eating them. As Allport writes, clays make effective antitoxins because:

their very fine particles give them a large surface area and make it likely that those particles will come into contact with the toxins in foods. And their crystalline structure is layered with positively charged ions, primarily of silicon and aluminum. Since many organic toxins are also positively charged particles, they essentially trade places with the ions in the clays, then pass harmlessly through the digestive system. 

Animals, also, can use clay to detoxify plants. Biologist Cindy Engel suggests that the scarlet macaws who eat clay from the Manu riverbed do so because their diet is high in toxic tree seeds, which the macaws detoxify by ingesting clay.

Yet a fourth hypothesis, and another that can account for pregnant women's cravings, is that it reduces nausea and indigestion. For years, the main ingredient in stomach-soothing Kaopectate was a white Georgia clay called kaolin. Formed millions of years ago of feldspar eroded from the Appalachians and carried by ancient rivers to the sea, these bands of kaolin are now covered by surface dirt. Kaolin has been found to reduce upset stomach and diarrhea, but it's valued more as an ingredient for high-quality glossy paper—it's what makes slick magazines slick. The story of how mining companies tricked poor Georgia Piedmont farmers into leasing away their mineral rights for a song is told in RED CLAY, PINK CADILLACS, AND WHITE GOLD: THE KAOLIN CHALK WARS, an unexpectedly gripping read. In it, authors Charles Seabrook and Marcy Louza describe how

women in chalk country, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, still stroll occasionally down the back country roads, spoons in hand, to scoop chalk right out the ground. 

But they also quote from a Macon physician who feels so strongly that eating clay can aggravate anemia that he goes on the radio to issue warnings. 

Finally, scientists suggest that perhaps we eat dirt because dirt is good for us. Jane E. Brody, in a 2009 NEW YORK TIMES piece, ponders why children learn to explore the world by putting it in their mouths. Such reflection leads her to consider "the hygiene hypothesis," which argues that we've become too clean; because children no longer play in dirt, they no longer ingest "the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with 'dirt'" that help develop immune systems. WHY DIRT IS GOOD by Mary Ruebush suggests that sheathing our children in mucus-y layers of Purell is not only misguided but accounts for the rise in childhood asthma and allergies. Ruebush argues that when children eat dirt, they are allowing their immune systems to practice responding; in addition, dirt "plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored." 

Could it be, then, that we are merely grown-up babies eating dirt out of an atavistic impulse that has survived because it gave us an evolutionary advantage? Diamond wonders, "Do curious dirt-licking babies deserve our encouragement for their experiments with self-medication?" A provocative question, but it is only that—a question—as even so-called experts do little more than conclude that more research is necessary.    

Perhaps these experts will get their wish, for there is a renewed interest in dirt, and this time it's coming from fashionable folk. In recent years, oenophiles have enjoyed discussing terroir, meaning "sense of place"—the climate, soil type, and topography of a region that lend unique properties to a wine. (Interestingly, these are the same qualities Southern geophagists have long noted and compared.) Extreme oenophiles have moved from merely discussing terroir of a certain vineyard to actually tasting terroir. These wine lovers sometimes mate with locavores, who eat only locally grown food, and subsequently there's a lot of consideration of the qualities local dirt imparts. Throw in the foodies' wish to know more about the earth that grows the grain that fattens the hog that fattens the folks. (One cheese artisan I know claims to be able to determine, from the taste of a bite of cheese, the grass the cow ate and the season in which it was milked.) Put them all together, and voilà: You have a fad, the latest manifestation of which is a soil tasting.

People living in San Francisco can find a soil tasting in a nearby art gallery; the rest of us can e-participate through a website ( run by performance artist and "agricultural activist" Laura Parker. Parker strives to answer the question "how does soil touch our lives and affect our food; and why does it matter?" To stimulate public dialogue, Parker fills wine goblets with various soils and adds a few teaspoons of water to release the aromas and flavors. The soils aren't ingested, but participants place their noses deep into the wine bowls, inhaling the newly released molecules to the backs of their tongues, where taste receptors lie. The website even provides "Tasting Notes," such as the soil of "Apple Farm-Indian Camp Ground, 'Arrowhead Reserve,'" which has a "texture like ground espresso between your fingertips with a rich, chocolate color. The nose is both flinty and grassy with finesse and subtlety." After the soil tasting, participants dine on food grown in the various soils and identify the qualities of the dirt in the food to strengthen the connection between what we eat and where it's grown.    

One factor that Parker addresses that few scientists address is taste. Which brings me to a sixth reason tht people might eat dirt: They like it. Certainly, that's what dirt eaters themselves, who praise its pleasant sourness, indicate. One online message board informed me that Scott from Scottsdale, Arizona, finds that "kaolite tastes like rain with a hint of peanuts and it melts in your mouth like chocolate." Sharlita from Batesville, Mississippi, reminisces wistfully that her family would "fry it and eat it warm."

While I might not have access to the fireplace where my husband's Alabama ancestors dug their clay, I want to experience their South, at least as much of it as remains. So I found the next best thing to Alabama dirt: Georgia dirt. "Home Grown Georgia White Dirt," kaolin from Toomsboro, was shipped UPS, discretely, as promised, in a brown wrapper. The label on the ziplock containing the large, white chalky chunks reads NOVELTY ITEM: NOT INTENDED FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. Humbug. My teeth sank satisfactorily into a chunk. Like an iceberg calving, a small slab fell onto my tongue and I chewed it just a few times until it dissolved into a smooth paste. This two-stage texture was probably the best part—mouthfeel is what food scientists call it—like gnawing on a solid chocolate Easter Bunny come August. Or, as my husband said, eating very stale Parmesan cheese. But the taste? Well, rather tasteless; chalky, with a strong finish of...chalk. I'd prefer the stale chocolate bunny. Or the stale Parmesan. Wondering if the hankering skips a generation, I handed a hunk to my four-year-old, who, um, didn't care for it. His tasting note: "Big fat butt dirt." 

New research shows that, while in the uterus, fetuses and their mothers exchange stem cells. So, of course, we feel close to our offspring; we have become—at the cellular level—each other. And in many religions, we allow the body of another to become our own; the eating of bread, the symbol of a body, brings about rebirth. As for me, I took the body of the South into my body, and truth be told, I do not feel redeemed. What is this white powder on my fingers? Million-year-old feldspar washed from the eroding Appalachians by roiling rivers and carried down to the seething sea. Dirty girl, Sister Mary Agnes once labeled me in St. Mary's Catholic school, and proceeded to wash my mouth out with soap. Oh, she should see my dirty mouth now.

After the recent earthquake, a woman makes mud cookies to sell in Port au Prince, January 27, 2010. Rodrigo Abd/AP.