Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Eating ‘eatin’ dirt’

Alabama Living Magazine
Illustration by Dennis Auth

Some years ago The New York Times published a story on how the “Southern Practice of Eating Dirt Shows Signs of Waning.”

Maybe so, among people who read The New York Times, but some of the folks at “The Bitter Southerner” thought otherwise.  Instead, the online publication suggested that the practice wasn’t waning at all and that the time had come for “Making Peace with the Age-Old Practice of Eating White Dirt.”

Growing up in Lower Alabama and bagging groceries in a small store that catered to a racially and socially mixed clientele, I recall the day a guy came in with news that a highway cut had exposed a seam of  “eatin’ dirt.”  He went on to tell anyone who would listen of how “dirt eaters” — whom he clearly counted among the lowest of the low — scooped it out by the buckets full until the bank was near collapse.  Then the seam ran out and the road was saved.

Little did I know then, but thanks to “The Bitter Southerner” I know now, that I am a dirt eater myself.

And so are you, probably.

You see, “eatin’ dirt” is mostly kaolin, a white clay that you can find in everything from toothpaste to Kaopectate.  You can also find chunks of it in a purer form for sale in plastic bags in the snack section of your local bait and beer shop.

Not only that, consuming “eatin’ dirt” is nothing new.  Folks have been doing it for over 2,000 years – long before there were Southerners to look down on for doing it.

And now comes the kicker.

Eating “eatin’ dirt” is not something practiced solely by poor whites and blacks. Nor can it be cited as one more piece of evidence of degeneracy in Dixie.

Nossir, eating “eatin’ dirt” has gone uptown.

Shortly after “The Bitter Southerner” article, another piece on the subject appeared in The New York Times. This one told readers that “Eating Clay is Touted by Celebrities.”

The fact that I had never heard of the celebrities doing this touting should in no way diminish the importance of the touting they are doing.

While pushing her new movie, one actress praised “the breath-freshening and body-detoxifying properties of clay.”

Meanwhile, that very month a “juicing chain,” owned in part by another actress, was “introducing a one-ounce bentonite clay shot,” which some folks say will clean you out like a Roto-Rooter.

Plans were in the works to turn it into a drink and bottle it.

Still, there was a downside.

Although clay is high in minerals such as calcium, iron and copper, physicians warn that it might also be full of bacteria, viruses and parasites.  I don’t know if the bugs in clay are some of the same ones that plagued Southerners for years, but if that is the case, my buddy John’s efforts to organize a “save the hookworm” movement might finally take off.

What has already taken off is “Earthpaste,” a clay-based toothpaste sold in health food stores.   It is ugly – think of a slug on your toothbrush – but folks are buying it.

If they swallow it, they are eating “eatin’ dirt.”

Just like the rest of us.ν


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