Everybody walks on it, others dig in it and some people even eat it. Geophagy, the process of eating dirt, has existed for centuries and still remains somewhat of a mystery. Many people from the South remember eating dirt, but wonder if it will disappear forever.
An antique, faded green car that’s the size of a small tank drives slowly up the gravel driveway early one morning and parks by a garden that’s overgrown with weeds. Ninety-one-year-old Inez Jenkins steps out of the car wearing her typical outfit-Keds, blue jeans, a collared shirt, a light jacket that has a safety pin clasped where the button should go and a navy cap.
She hasn’t eaten dirt since her early 50s, but she remembers it well.
“It’s kinda got a lil’ wang to it, a lil’ sour…it’s real good,” Jenkins said.
The practice of eating dirt, also known as geophagy or pica, has gone on for centuries. The custom is most popular in the South, but originated in West Africa.
For Jenkins, eating dirt had always been a family tradition. She began eating dirt when she was just 6 years old.
“I just heard my grandmamma talking ‘bout she eat dirt and I just started eating dirt too,” Jenkins said.
Research conducted by Dr. David Frate in 1975 concluded that eating dirt was more common for rural, black women than black males. Also, poor, rural whites had been known to eat dirt.
The dirt can be found on the side of highways or from a ditchbank, but Jenkins notes, it’s harder to find now than it used to be. Ditchbanks have either been leveled out or grown up with plants, making it difficult to find the dirt.
Red clay and white dirt are the most popular kinds of dirt for people to consume. However, Jenkins said to make sure the dirt does not have sand in it or else it will not taste as good.
“Well you can get some white, but I don’t care for the white. I like the red clay,” Jenkins said. “You gotta get the right kind. Don’t get the kind with the sand in it.”
Patricia Cooper also heard about eating dirt from her grandmother when she was about 13 years old.
“We would just go walking and they were like ‘Here’s some eating dirt. Let’s stop and get some.’ And that’s what we did,” Cooper said. “It was a treat to eat white dirt.”
Once the dirt was gathered, they would dry it out in the sun or in the oven before eating it. Cooper said the taste was hard to describe, but reminded her of milk of magnesia when it was in its solid form.
Cooper does not remember eating it for any health reasons and just ate it because it tasted good. Her grandmother would warn them not to eat too much but to just break off a little piece at a time.
“We would dig up under the red to get to the white dirt. We didn’t use shovels. We used like a tablespoon and a knife to get it,” Cooper said.
After the Great Migration when millions of African Americans moved to the North, it was not uncommon for them to send requests back home South for some dirt. Not only was it harder to find the right type of dirt in the urban areas, but it didn’t taste the same.
“I had an aunt who lived in Illinois. We would send her some (dirt) in the mail every year. She just liked the taste of it and couldn’t get it where she lived,” Cooper said.
Daisy Miller remembers an aunt who lived in Oklahoma City wanting dirt from Mississippi.
“Mostly when other relatives came from Oklahoma City….for like a funeral or a reunion.. she would ask them to bring her some of the dirt back,” Miller said.
Jenkins stopped eating dirt when she briefly lived in Illinois. She thought the dirt tasted different and when she eventually came back to the South, she had dropped the habit of eating it.
Miller could never bring herself to eat dirt growing up even though she knew other family members ate it.
“No, I don’t think I’d ever of done it. All I could think about was all the animal waste that was in it. You know, the deer, the dogs and all that,” Miller said.
Ole Miss nutrition professor Emmy Parkes acknowledged that there are health risks associated with eating dirt. She explained that microbes in the dirt can cause illnesses like gastroenteritis and specific respiratory syndromes. Pica is also closely connected to mineral deficiencies.
“No one really knows why pica exists. It’s highly correlated with iron deficiency, which means that where you find high rates of iron deficiency, you also find high rates of pica,” Parkes said. “It’s often theorized that in Mississippi, people started eating the red dirt because it is high in iron.”
Pregnant women would often crave dirt because they had the highest risk of iron deficiency since they need so much of it to support growth. A study done as recently as 2010 found that 68 percent of pregnant women in U.S. public health clinics engaged in pica.
“I’ve been around a few of my (pregnant) friends that craved dirt,” Jenkins said.
However, Parkes noted that the causes and consequences of pica remain largely a mystery.
“It is a world-wide phenomenon that is poorly understood and difficult to research,” Parkes said. “Many people are embarrassed about pica and won’t admit to having it. Also, a lot of people can’t explain why they eat dirt…other than to say they crave it, which is very subjective.”
Once Cooper reached adulthood, she began to realize the negative health aspects of eating dirt and decided to stop.
“I can’t imagine eating it now,” Cooper said.
Jenkins still considers eating dirt to be relatively healthy and thinks the good outweighs the bad benefits.
“Oh yeah, if you get the right kind, it ain’t gonna hurt you because you know, you’re made of dirt, you know that,” Jenkins said with a laugh.
Jenkins, Cooper and Miller have all noticed that geophagy has decreased in popularity over the past several decades. Cooper said her kids wouldn’t even try it.
“They just think it was nasty,” Cooper said.
Jenkins doesn’t know of anyone who eats dirt now and doesn’t know why people don’t do it anymore.
Miller thinks that eating dirt will fade out with future generations and eventually become non-existent.
“People is really particular about what goes into their body now and they try to be more healthy,” Miller said.
The New York Times interviewed Dr. Frate in 1984 about the decline of geophagy in the South–
”In another generation I suspect it will disappear altogether….As the influence of television and the media has drawn these isolated communities closer to the mainstream of American society, dirt eating has increasingly become a social taboo.”
As the newer generations come, the less likely the tradition of eating dirt will be passed on. The older generations will only have their memories of it.
Before Jenkins got back in her clunky, old car to drive away, she said wistfully, “If I could find some dirt, I’d eat it right now.”