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WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2007
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Eating dirt is a Southern culinary tradition

Lots of good foods make us distinctly Southern. And we've managed to keep most of these safely below the Mason-Dixon line. Things like okra, collard greens, turnip greens, grits, hushpuppies — you get the point. But there is one Southern consumption that is bewildering to our Northern cousins. In fact, it probably bewilders a lot of us, too. It's geophagy. Hang with me.

I can remember going up to Cadillac, Mich., one winter in the late 1980s with a group of men from Parkview Baptist Church in Decatur to help build a church building in the artic of Michigan. At breakfast one morning at a local Cadillac diner, Charles Lewis Thompson asked for biscuits, grits, gravy and eggs — and almost got us thrown out. Thank goodness he didn't ask for dirt. "Dirt" you ask?

Consumption of dirt is the culinary tradition known scientifically as geophagy. Yes, some people do eat dirt. But not just any old dirt, mind you. Usually top soils are left out of this. Am I kidding? Nope. I'm for real. Researchers tell us that this practice likely came to the South from West Africa, where clay is dried and compressed into egg shapes and sold at markets. From there it came to us when slaves were brought here.

So, who eats dirt? Mostly women. And this has led some anthropologists to theorize that the dirt serves some sort of nutritional purpose. It is especially eaten by pregnant women, so maybe this craving for soil is the body's way of getting needed nutrients. But isn't eating dirt nasty? Seems that if it isn't topsoil (which houses worms, insects, bacteria, manures, etc.) and isn't contaminated by lead, sewers, etc., then it is really not so "dirty." Likely no worse for us than eating potato chips or crackers — at least, not as long as the diet also contains plenty of fruits and vegetables.

It seems the practice is declining somewhat in modern times, and this may likely be from convenience. It isn't really convenient to drive out into the hills for a quick scoop of clay to munch on. The local grocery store is a lot more handy.

Finding yourself feeling a bit haughty now? Thinking that you've never eaten dirt? Considering that Kaolin clay is used to make digestive aids like "Kaopectate," you may be wrong there!

Mmmmmm. What's for dinner? I'm feeling hungry!

Jerry Chenault is with the Cooperative Extension System in Lawrence County.

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