In my first journalism job out of college, I was reporting on a noteworthy yet basically boring bit of news about Holmes County, Mississippi having the highest rate of hypertension in the United States. It was a rural medical oddity with sad implications for people who lived at the intersection of poverty and obesity.
In researching the story, I interviewed Dr. Dennis Frate, who was doing a nutrition study relative to the county’s hypertension rates, and who mentioned in passing that many of the women he interviewed had told him that they ate dirt. That, of course, was interesting, and prompted another article about the phenomenon.
The dirt eating, Frate said, wasn’t directly related to high blood pressure. It was an ancient phenomenon, known as geophagia, which was little understood. I later found that dirt eating persists in other parts of the world, but what was most important for my purposes was that a small group of women in Holmes County were still doing it. From the women Frate put me in touch with who were willing to talk, as well as others I found through different avenues, I learned that they dug their dirt at special sites, mostly along rural road banks where they said the dirt was the purest, the most palatable and the best tasting.
All the dirt-eaters I spoke with were female. Some didn’t want to be quoted, but others agreed, and their words were both straightforward and haunting, hinting at the overlap of deep human knowledge and neurosis. When the story ran, readers were unsure what to make of it. Some saw it as laughable, others deeply sad. Some were offended by what they mistakenly believed was an intent to make fun of the women. Unquestionably, there were powerful forces at work — in the women’s memories, in their psyches and, yes, in their digestive tracts. This tender consumption of the earth revealed deep longing and seemed to be linked to menstrual cycles, birth and childhood. Also: rain.
The story ran in the Dec. 18, 1983, Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss., under the headline:
It’s hard to quit the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say
Two months later, on Feb. 13, 1984, the New York Times published what was essentially a rewrite of the story, without citing it, including an interview with Frate and with other women who said pretty much the same things.
The following is the text of my article.
GOODMAN, Miss. – Mamie Harrington isn’t sure when she quit eating dirt regularly, but said she began to “slack up” after her favorite clay bank was bulldozed and the death of her cousin, who often gave her oven-baked dirt.
“When I was young, I used to eat it all the time,” said Mrs. Harrington, 53. “In those days, the people were farming and they didn’t have nothing to do but chop the cotton and eat that dirt. Now they mostly live in town, and good dirt is hard to find.
“But when you find you some good dirt,” she said, “it’s delicious.”
Dirt eating, a common practice in many cultures, is apparently on the decline in Mississippi. Dr. Dennis Frate, who did a nutritional study of Holmes County in the early 1970s and found that amore than 50 percent of the women there ate dirt, said the practice may disappear without ever being fully understood.
“Dirt eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,” Frate said. “But very little is known about why people do it.”
Frate said the practice, known as geophagia, is an ancient phenomenon that in this country has persisted mostly among rural blacks in the South. Little is known about its causes or effects, he said, because research has been minimal. “One thing we do know,” Frate said, “is that it’s not as dangerous as it was once thought to be.” Because dirt eaters dig at least a foot and a half below the surface for their clay and often bake it, the chance of ingesting parasites is slim, he said.
Many people find the idea repugnant, and since colonial times, dirt eating has been scorned as the source of numerous health problems, including hookworm and iron deficiency. Some planters in the old South reportedly fashioned mouthpieces and metal masks to prevent slaves from eating dirt.
The problem was not limited to slaves, however, and numerous reports of dirt eating by whites – usually in the piney woods regions – were often accompanied by descriptions of “sallow complexions” and “general shiftlessness” attributed to the practice.
Frate’s study, however, revealed that unless excessive amounts of dirt are eaten regularly – a habit which can cause intestinal blockages – the practice has no known harmful effects. Dr. John Morrison, a professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said the majority of dirt eaters are women who consume dirt only when they are pregnant – for unknown reasons – and that the practice is now generally considered a medical “oddity” rather than a problem. “It’s not really a craving,” Morrison said, “it’s just a practice that’s handed down.”
Margarate Taylor, 34, of Jackson, said it seemed like a craving to her, but that her grandmother taught her to eat dirt and she in turn taught her own daughter. She said she quit after a patient who ate “a lot of dirt” was diagnosed, at UMC where Mrs. Taylor works, as having intestinal cancer.
Five months pregnant now, she said she’s attempting to overcome “the awful craving” to go back to Terry, where she grew up, and eat dirt.
“When it rains, and I can smell it far off, I want it very much, and I just hope no one will bring me any dirt now, because I know I’d eat it.”
For Margie Williams, 36, also of Jackson, it doesn’t really matter if dirt eating is an actual physical craving or not. The fact is, she started and now she can’t quit.
Mrs. Williams said she began eating dirt as a child in rural Yazoo County, quit, then started back when she became pregnant with her first child.
“It just seemed like I wanted it then,” she said. “And when my first child was born, I didn’t want it anymore.” She said she recalled seeing her aunt and mother eating dirt.
Mrs. Williams, who said many of her friends eat dirt when they’re pregnant, said she was unable to quit after her second child was born. “And that’s been four years,” she said. “It’s like I have to have it.” She said she doesn’t bake her dirt, as most do, but dries it on top of her water heater. She eats about a handful each day. “It has a beautiful taste to me, but it’s not as good as the dirt we had back in Yazoo County.”
She said she’d like to quit eating dirt, for obvious reasons – “because it’s dirt.”
“Lots of times I can eat dirt and not eat food – sometimes I can just put a little in my mouth and get rid of that taste, and I feel better. But if it’s raining or something and I can’t get out to my hill, it hurts me to my heart.”
Frate said for many dirt eaters there is a strong connection between eating and emotional wellbeing – giving credence to the traditional assertion that dirt eating often stems from depression. He said that dirt eating is not necessarily a result of hunger (although it is eaten as a snack food) but may be more comparable with smoking or dipping snuff.
“But,” he said, “there’s a lot we may never know, because it does seem to be dying out and people are hesitant to talk about it because of the social stigma. It’s not that dirt eating is that rare – it’s just hidden.”
Mrs. Harrington, who confessed she still takes a handful “now and then,” said, “You never know what you might do when you’re just sitting around. When it rains and I can smell the earth, I still have a taste for it.”
But, “like most people,” she said, she has given up dirt for Argo starch, cocoa or flour – packaged substitutes that are considered more sanitary and are more readily available, since not just any dirt will do.
“You don’t eat the old red clay,” Mrs. Harrington said, “and they don’t eat the Delta dirt or a sandy dirt.”
Fine yellow clay is preferred, she said, and it’s dug from selected sites along road cuts out in the country. “Good” dirt sites are seldom disclosed, because, “Once the people find out, it’ll be like a convention out there,” she said.
Frate said dirt is often “trafficked” up North by relatives in the South. He said, “It’s more than just a desire to consume dirt – they seem to have a sentimental attachment to the dirt back home.”
“Regardless of what you think about the practice,” he said, “it’s a part of history – 10 years ago it was commonplace, but 10 years from now it may be gone altogether, and we may never know why it’s done.”
As Mrs. Williams observed, “I don’t ever see anybody else out at my dirt hill. I’m the only one that goes out there, and I don’t know anybody else that does it all the time. I keep thinking that if I could just find me some real good dirt and eat it, I’d be able to quit, too.”