I Think I’ll Go Eat Dirt

Feedloader (Clickability)

My pregnancy cravings have been pretty tame so far—kettle corn, Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, sweet gherkins, grapefruit. Some women confess much more outlandish obsessions (fried eggs with mint sauce, black olives on cheesecake) on various online forums, and many pregnant ladies want to nibble what wouldn’t normally count as food—stuff like laundry soap, matches, and, yes, dirt. In 2008, the website gurgle.com conducted a survey of particularly exotic maternal longings, and mud made the top 10 snacks, along with chalk and coal.

The practice of eating dirt is called “geophagy,” and all sorts of people indulge in it. Mahatma Gandhi believed that eating clay was cleansing and advised his followers to partake. At El Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine in New Mexico, consuming sand is still part of a religious healing tradition.

And sometimes consuming dirt is simply a desperate bid for survival: even before last year’s devastating earthquake, impoverished Haitians sometimes baked and ate mud in the absence of other food.

But by far the best-known, and least-understood, devourers of dirt are women in the family way, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in the American South and elsewhere. Nobody knows precisely why so many pregnant women have a taste for dirt and mud, but scientists suspect that certain varieties of soil function like natural pre-natal vitamins, supplying missing nutrients such as copper or iron. Ingesting dirt might also soothe morning sickness and fortify the mother’s immune system.

Speaking of immune systems, it struck me as odd that pregnant women would crave a substance potentially crawling with bugs and bacteria—to protect our unborn children from infection and disease, we have heightened senses of smell and are notoriously picky about what we eat (while still managing to eat an astounding amount). But women apparently dig beneath the contaminated surface soil to harvest deeper, cleaner clays that are free of manure and parasites. And they may deliberately target healthful soils. In Africa, women seek out dirt from termite mounds, which is rich in calcium and could help build a baby’s bones in the second and third trimester.

In a piece last year in the Oxford American, Beth Ann Fennelly described the roots of geophagy in the United States. Slaves probably brought the practice from Africa to the southern plantations, where whites adopted it, too. (Fennelly claims her Alabama in-laws used to munch the clay mortar in their fireplace hearth.) Preferences vary by community: some like smooth white clay, and others coarser forms of dirt.

Once rampant, dirt-eating is less common in the modern South and is attached to powerful poverty-related stigmas. But baked mud nuggets are still sold in some convenience stores, Fennelly reports. She sampled some “Home Grown Georgia White Dirt” from Toomsboro, Georgia and compared the taste to “very stale Parmesan.”

And if anybody out there is in the throes of a craving, it’s apparently possible to order edible dirt online, through sites like www.clayremedies.com—although actually, they recommend that you drink it.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.