The American South Is Still Eating White Dirt

Geophagy, the technical term for deliberately eating earth, soil, or clay, sounds like a terrible idea. Yet in many parts of the world, this is not considered strange or rare, but a culinary past time.

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Jun 5 2015, 8:30pm

Geophagy, the technical term for deliberately eating earth, soil, or clay, sounds like a terrible idea. Yet in many parts of the world, this is not considered strange or rare, but a culinary past time. One of these regions is the American South, where eating white dirt has a long and elusive history.

An outsider to this practice, I was curious to learn more, so I spoke to Adam Forrester, a filmmaker who has spent the last four years exploring eating earth in his new project, Eat White Dirt. It turns out that the ongoing history and the origins of why people continue to snack on powdered clay continues to be mysterious.

southern-clay-eaters

Kaolin Festival, Sandersville, GA

MUNCHIES: Why did you make a documentary about eating dirt? Adam Forrester: I had never seen [dirt eating before], but I had heard of it. I grew up around it. There were all these locally owned convenience stores selling things that looked like white rocks in a cardboard box next to the registers. I started to ask the storeowners what they were for, and they told me that people eat it. When I asked why, they didn't know. That's where this thing whole documentary started; I set out to answer why someone would be compelled to put a piece of earth into their bodies.

Tell me more about white dirt, a.k.a. kaolin. Kaolin is a kind of clay mineral deposit. There's a kaolin belt runs through the state of Georgia—which is part of an ancient coastline—where it was washed down from a mountain range and deposited a long time ago. Now it's mainly mined, but along the fall line, there are some areas that you can gain access to it [from the surface]. Kaolin is one of the major industries of Georgia and has many industrial applications—paint, cosmetics, paper. Kaopectate is an antidiarrheal that was made with kaolin for a long time (hence the name).

clay

The contents of a $1.99 bag of "White Dirt."

What do you think compels people to eat it? If you're going to eat dirt, sand is what you don't want. Kaolin has very low sand content because it's a very smooth clay.

How common do you think this Southern practice is today? Convenience store owners say they refill their supply of white dirt weekly, which would indicate that there is a consistent "demand" for it. However, it's incredibly difficult to find people to admit to eating clay.

How would you describe the taste—if any? The flavor reminds me of fresh rain on a hot day. It's quite creamy, but also pretty dry. For most people, the taste is unremarkable, but for some, it creates an insatiable craving.

Kaolin-eating is often associated with pregnant women, correct? It's not just a Southern thing. Kaolin is a culinary habit for many pregnant African-American females in the South, but it's also popular with younger children around the world. There's a term tossed around out there for a small group of geophagists of European descent mostly found in South Carolina known as "sand-lappers." Elephants, parrots, grizzly bears, rabbits, squirrels, and many other animals practice geophagy too.

Some people attribute the origin of the practice in the South to slaves brought over from Africa. Has this past influenced its present? I would describe the origins as much older than the slave trade. Hippocrates wrote about women eating earth in ancient Greece sometime around 400 BCE, and this is just the first written record. The practice may have existed for hundreds of thousands of years before that. It did and still does popularly exist in Africa, but there are currently accounts of human geophagy from nearly every country in the world. I think the practice has survived because it is much more pervasive than we may realize. It has survived in the American South because its a generational practice. Most people I spoke with said they eat dirt because that's what their mother did. Historically, it has been practiced by pregnant women, and people just write it off as something that pregnant women do. I hope that this project gives the phenomenon the respect and attention that it deserves.

reservoir-for-dirt

Kaolin Mine, Sandersville, GA

Do you think this practice is an eating anomaly? Everyone that was raised in the American South knows about white dirt. There are a few other odd distinctly Southern delicacies that fit with white dirt, like yellow root tea.

Dirt-eating comes with something of a stigma, doesn't it? The stigma is also one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. The practice has been written off for centuries as something that pregnant women do. Little to no understanding has ever been sought after in the context of the American South. I wanted the people that eat white dirt to have a voice in the matter to be able to speak for themselves. It was very important to find geophagists that would speak on camera. It was not an easy task.

Who are some of the more memorable characters you met? Tammy Wright and her daughter, Tatiana, hands down. Tammy got real with me and the camera within minutes. She admitted that she eats way too much kaolin, but she can't stop. For her, consuming it is a "vanity thing," and even demonstrated how she likes to prepare her dirt.

OK, so where does all of this dirt come from? Is it difficult to come by? You can get it from the Internet. People call from as far as London to order white dirt over the phone at the municipal market in Atlanta. It's located in many neighborhood convenience stores, and there are deposits along the fall line where people may still be collecting it for sale or home use. I've persistently tried to get the sellers to talk to me about their sources (with little luck). One told me she gets it straight out of the ground from a deposit near Macon, Georgia.

dirt-samples

Geologist Paul Schroeder discusses the different stages of kaolin development.

Do you think eating it is healthy? I wouldn't classify it as 'healthy', but in moderation, it could be seen as a preventative. If anyone has ever taken Kaopectate for stomach ailments, you've probably eaten kaolin. It has the ability to replace lost or damaged stomach lining, and sooth digestive problems in moderation. It's currently being developed through pharmaceutical research as a component in drug delivery, but too much of it can block the intestines.

After all these years, do you feel like you've uncovered the secret behind eating white dirt? People have to watch the film, which is getting screened at various festivals this September.

Good luck.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on July 23, 2014.