do so with caution

Once again a memory from my boyhood days working at Clifford Goolsby’s store digs its way to the surface. That store was a portal to a sometimes-strange world, and one of the stranger things I heard came out of the mouth of Bill Goolsby, a true character. Bill ran the register at Mr. Clifford’s. He was a good-humored fellow and a prankster who soldered a quarter to a nail and drove it into the wooden floor near the register. How many laughs I got from the kids and adults who tried to scrape that quarter off the floor. Bill’s pranks and wild tales kept me in stitches so it was hard to believe him when I said, “A lot of country folk sure do buy Niagara Starch.”

“They eat it,” said Bill.

“Eat it?”

“Yep, they eat it.”

It Wasn't Just For Ironing
It Wasn’t Just For Ironing

That’s the truth. People white and black eat white dirt. The starch bought at Goolsby’s store was a substitute for white dirt. I’ve never eaten starch or dirt but this Georgia boy would eat starch or dirt any day before he’d eat sushi. As my friend, Noel, says, “I don’t eat bait.” Well guess what? I’ve eaten white dirt and so have you. Read on.

Folks in the South, particularly Georgia, eat a kind of dirt referred to as white clay. Now we’re not talking about young girls baking mud pies in their Easy Bake ovens. No, eating dirt is a custom slaves brought here from Africa. Other names for white dirt include clay dirt, white clay, kaolin, porcelain clay, china clay, chalk, or the scientific name aluminum silicate hydroxide. Kaolin, as most Georgians know, is a white clay found mainly in Georgia and Alabama. Sandersville is the Kaolin Capital of the World. And yes you may well have consumed some of Sandersville’s finest white dirt. If you ever taken Kaopectate to stave off the trots, and you know what I mean, you’ve eaten dirt. Up until 1980 kaolin was the primary ingredient in Kaopectate. Easy to see how it got its name. Kaolin isn’t in Kaopectate anymore but generic brands still contain it. Read the labels and you’ll see. Kaolin is also in some brands of toothpaste and in Rolaids, Di-gel, Mylanta, and Maalox. Of course using these products doesn’t come anywhere near eating bona fide dirt, which people gladly do. In fact, some people crave white dirt, saying it tastes the way the earth smells when a cloud comes up.

So, how about you non-Kaopectate users? Have you eaten dirt? I’ll save you the suspense. The answer is “yes.” Kaolin is used in commercial ice cream. Not to worry it might not be a bad thing. Marc Lallanilla wrote a feature for ABC News, “Eating Dirt: It Might Be Good for You.” Here’s an excerpt from his feature.

“It melts in your mouth like chocolate,” says Ruth Anne T. Joiner, describing the delicious taste of clay around her home in Montezuma. “The good stuff is real smooth. It’s just like a piece of candy.”

In 1984 the New York Times ran a story on the southern practice of eating dirt. “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. When it’s good and dug from the right place, dirt has a fine sour taste.’ ”

There was a time rural women would season dirt with salt and vinegar and eat a handful. And guess what? If they couldn’t find dirt, some women use packaged raw cornstarch. Thus, did options like Niagara Starch, which has a similar paste-like texture to fine clays, come into play.

Aside from tasting good it may be good for you. Now if you think there’s a fancy term for swallowing soil as therapy you’re right. It’s referred to as “geophagy” or “geophagia.” From the ancient Greeks to Native Americans, cultures have long practiced geophagy. Women predominantly eat dirt, especially pregnant women. Though medical professionals rarely advocate eating dirt, some nutritionists believe eating clay absorbs toxins due to its binding effect.

Do you wish you had some delicious dirt? Well, if you do, check out White Dirt of Georgia. Here’s where you can buy the number one brand of white dirt, “Grandmas.” How about this little tagline: “Enjoy a Little Sunshine In Every Bag.” You can order two bags of white dirt for just $9.95 and shipping. And finally there’s this bit of salesmanship from the good folks down in White Plains, Georgia. “Tasting Is Believing.”

Maybe so. Maybe too you should know that according to Dixie’s Forgotten People: the South’s Poor Whites, by J. Wayne Flynt, eating dirt was common among poor whites in the Southeast. Down here geophagy may have be linked to hookworm disease, of which the desire to eat soil is a symptom.

All this business of craving non-food items falls under a medical term known as pica, pronounced “peeka.” Pica derivates from the word “magpie, a bird thought to eat most anything. As well, magpie comes from the Greek kissa magpie, which translates to “false appetite.” In the early 1300s, pica was used to address the phenomenon of women, of pregnant women typically, who craved non-food substances. And as for magpies the birds, they weren’t eating a lot of strange things, just building their nests with them.

So, the burning question is this: Is eating clay good for us or is it merely a strange custom passed down through the ages? An Australian woman, Jessica Ainscough, promotes herself as the Wellness Warrior. Each morning she dissolves a teaspoon or two of clay in a cup of water and drinks it to remove the toxic effects of chemotherapy she endured years earlier. Here’s a bit from her website. “Over two hundred cultures worldwide eat dirt on a daily basis. In Europe, clay is sold for its gastrointestinal benefits and its purification properties. It’s just that for some reason, the idea of eating dirt disgusts most westerners – even though we are more than happy to consume pesticides, herbicides, chlorinated and fluoridated water, meats pumped with hormones and antibiotics, and other synthetic substances disguised as food.”

She makes a good point, but before you rush down to Washington County with a shovel be advised that eating dirt carries a social stigma. Eat dirt and some will suspect you’re, well, dirt poor. That shame discourages many from eating dirt, but do health benefits trump the stigma? Maybe a diet of clay might do more good for us than we can imagine. I’ve long believed there’s a lot of hard-earned wisdom backing customs like acupuncture and clay eating. Who among us, for instance, could sally forth and pick which plants in the wild are edible? Not many. Well animals do that everyday without reliance on books, classes, or doctors and animals eat clay. Instinctively drawn to clay, many plant-eating animals eat clay after ingesting herbs loaded with toxic tannins.

Are we missing out on a great source of health? Another website, About Clay, has this to say. “The use of clay for both internal and external use puts in our hands the healing power of mother earth and there is little that can compare or compete in the world of medicine. There is no healing system more powerful than that which employs Nature’s primordial substances, materials so pure and close to nature that they yield benefits without the typical side effects of most medicines.”

Research clay eating and you will come across a good many books devoted to clay’s healing effects. Downing some dirt has even made its way into literature. In The Grapes of Wrath, one of John Steinbeck’s main characters gets caught red-handed eating dirt. Dirt is also part of the diet for a character in Pearl Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, an apropos title!

Those country folk long ago at Mr. Clifford’s store? History stands by their side. The Augusta region has a long track record for eating white dirt. And here in these modern times women love to apply clay cosmetic masks to their face. So, how about it? Ready to give clay a whirl?

Just don’t blame me if you get sick. Some physicians warn that you can end up with a ruptured colon. I suggest you play it safe. After you read this column, forget about eating dirt or you might end up six feet down in it. I will say that if it does taste like the fragrance of the first few drops from a thunderstorm, I just might order a bag or two of Grandma’s white dirt and give it a try. On second thought maybe I’ll try some starch first and take it from there.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]