Southern practice of dirt eating shows signs of waning


It's after a rainfall, when the earth smells so rich and damp and flavorful, that Fannie Glass says she most misses having some dirt to eat. ''It just always tasted so good to me,'' says Mrs. Glass, who now eschews a practice that she acquired as a small girl from her mother. ''When it's good and dug from the right place, dirt has a fine sour taste.''

For generations, the eating of clay-rich dirt has been a curious but persistent custom in some rural areas of Mississippi and other Southern states, practiced over the years by poor whites and blacks.

But while it is not uncommon these days to find people here who eat dirt, scholars and others who have studied the practice say it is clearly on the wane. Like Mrs. Glass, many are giving up dirt because of the social stigma attached to it.

''In another generation I suspect it will disappear altogether,'' said Dr. Dennis A. Frate, a medical anthropologist from the University of Mississippi who has studied the phenomenon. ''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.

'' Geophagy, the Culture of Earth-Eating"

Dr. Frate says nearly every culture has passed through a phase of earth eating, known as geophagy. But it appears to be most prevalent these days among rural black women in the South, some of whom say they eat a handful a day, snacking from bags or jars in which they keep dirt that has been dug from a favorite clay bank, baked and, often, seasoned with vinegar and salt.

In addition, families here in Leflore County sometimes mail shoe boxes full of dirt to relatives who have moved north but still crave the flavor of dirt dug from the clay hills back home.

According to Dr. Frate and others, there is no evidence among those who have been surveyed that dirt eating is harmful to their health.

Researchers say those who eat dirt do not do so to satisfy hunger or to meet a biochemical urge to acquire certain metals or minerals that might be missing from the diet. Rather, they do so because the practice has been learned culturally. Links Are Traced to West Africa

Dr. Frate said dirt eating is one of the few customs surviving among some Southern blacks that can be directly traced to ancestral origins in West Africa. Dirt-eating is common among some tribes in Nigeria today.

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

Instead of eating dirt, some women use packaged raw corn starch or baking soda as a substitute. Dr. Frate says these materials have a similar paste-like texture to the fine hill clays that have traditionally been eaten.

But not everyone makes that switch. ''I don't hold with either baking soda or starch,'' said Mrs. Glass. ''Starch just don't take the place of dirt.''

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

While it is was not unusual to find small boys who ate dirt, the practice appears to be shunned by adult males. Of 33 men questioned in the households studied, none said they ate dirt.

Dirt-eating has also been practiced among poor, rural whites, who in the early part of this century were known as ''clay eaters.''

A Certain Kind of Dirt

Those who do eat dirt make it clear that not any dirt will do.

The dirt that is consumed by some of the people who live here in Cruger, a small collection of cinderblock homes and small clapboard houses huddled along Highway 49, comes from a single spot along a sloping bank above a gravel road in the hills about seven miles east of town.

Such favored sites are not uncommon in rural Mississippi. Dr. Frate told of visiting another popular site one afternoon and finding three cars lined up there, ''like at a drive- in bank, so people could fill their bags with dirt.''

According to Mrs. Glass and others, ''hill dirt,'' which is rich in clay, is preferable to the dirt of the flatter landscape of the Mississippi Delta, which has a grittier, rougher texture and is popularly referred to as ''gumbo dirt.'' Rarely a Medical Problem, Doctor Says

Dr. Frate said chemical investigation of dirt samples turned up no evidence that dirt eating is harmful. Not only is the dirt often baked, it is generally gathered from far enough below the surface to be free of chemcial contaminants, insects or parastic worms.

Dr. Sidney A. Johnson, a rural physician in Goodman, a small community south of here, said that among the women he sees who eat dirt, only once was it the source of a medical problem.

''I had a patient who had eaten so much dirt that it had packed her large colon,'' said Dr. Johnson, who noted that fine clays have a tendency to adhere to lining of the intestines.

For her part, Mrs. Glass says she has been off dirt for about a year now, after her husband complained to her that it was a bad habit ''that makes your mouth taste like mud.''

''But there are times when I really miss it,'' said Mrs. Glass. ''I wish I had some dirt right now.''

Damn. So much for that new restaurant I was planning.

Someone needs to compose an instrumental titled Gumbo Dirt.

Shorty? Galactic? Some band with a fiddle and an accordian?

say Granny, after we finish this ditchweed you think if I go and fetch a shovel and fill up the wheelbarrow, you could bake us up one of those mud pies?


And people give ME shit for long posts?

About eating dirt?


Sounds like you've been done dirty, Lance, but don't get down in the muck with the haters.

^^^^ LOL
I found my 3 yr-old brother eating soil in our little backyard fruit tree orchard once. 

Mom chalked it up to a craving for minerals, but maybe she came up with that answer to get me to stop asking questions about the topic, ha.

When I was a young man I was a pre-school teacher, and I had some experience with kids eating dirt.

As involved as any of those stories may have been, none of them would have involved as much posting space at the OP did.

Just sayin'.

When I worked in doctor offices we occasionally saw people (diagnosed with pica) who ate dirt and starch. Minerals were often discussed. People who ate ice were thought to need iron. I just Googled ice and they listed Iron and/or anemia as possibilities. We are resourceful beings.

I don't understand the baking part of the story. Baked clay is the stuff of pottery. Seems like that would be hard on the teeth.

Maybe they turn it into baked very thin chip-like form, you know, like Kettle Chips seasoned with vinegar and salt. Crunchy.

Not much iron in ice chips.

Maybe in some place like Flint MI.

! prefer a lil worm mixed in my dirt, just like my mommy dug for me 

>> none of them would have involved as much posting space at the OP did.<<

difference is

your long ass posts are almost always all about yourself

get over it

Mike- eating terracotta is sort of a thing

the comments are wild. Like a clay focused mini zone-offshoot.

Surf, it's not that the ice will give them iron, it's not a conscious thing, it's a tell in the medical world that their bodies are in need of it.

poor people just dig the clay soil, but they know what they're doing.

i assume that baking the clay mixture is for killing bacteria, viruses, spores and, equally as important, the eggs of parasitic hook, tape and round worms, which are all prevalent in the soil in southern states.

That makes a lot of sense, Joe. I forgot that soil is not just a growing medium, but it's habitat too.

> Mike- eating terracotta is sort of a thing

That's news to me, Bss, and yeah, those comments are kind of a mess. That people actually solicit health advice from strangers on youtube should blow my mind, but it just doesn't anymore.

Difference is, my "long ass" posts aren't about eating dirt.

No problem getting over that.

What the hell is the matter with you "long ass" post guys? I must have missed the announcement of a competition about whose posts are longer, bigger, better, worse, more something, etc.

Thank you both for posting authentically, interestingly, and usually kindly. Okay, I'm going to make dinner now.


I have literally never commented on the length or frequency or anything having to do with your posts until right here today in this thread, dude. Regardless of the topic.

Not once, not ever, not on this zone, not on the old zone either. So maybe I just don't understand your concern here. Like, at all.


Yes, I suppose I made an unusually long post.

Look at me. I'm using the internet.

^^ Sorry about my comment about you guys. Not only do I hold you both in such high esteem, I didn't see anything wrong with the OP, and couldn't figure out what was going on. I still don't get it.

I was just trying to be amusing.

Fortunately, I didn't have to make my living being amusing.

But my students did often give me grief for being "talkative".

I told them I get paid either way.

Thread got dirty. 


Quad post.

They see me rollin'
They hatin'
Patrollin' and tryna catch me eating' dirty
Tryna catch me eating dirty
Tryna catch me eating' dirty
Tryna catch me eating' dirty
Tryna catch me eating dirty
My music's so loud
I'm swangin'
They hopin' that they gon' catch me eating dirty

So many words, I tell you
So many words I know
So many words, so many words
Mountain high, river wide
So many words to write
So many words, so many words



is real estate expensive here?