Eating “eatin’ dirt”

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Some years ago Roy Blount Jr., clearly the funniest Southern writing today – except maybe for Jim Cobb and John Shelton Reed and Rick Perry (you gotta admit, that guy is a hoot) – wrote about being at a fancy New York literary soiree shortly after “The New York Times” published a story on how the “Southern  Practice of Eating Dirt Shows Signs of Waning.”
Sure enough, a soiree-sophisticated lady sidled up to Blount, looked at him “that way,” and in a voice that did not hide her distain said, accusingly, “I understand you people eat dirt down there” (or something like that. I don’t have handy a copy of Blount Jr’s account of the incident, so I cannot quote her directly, but you get the point.)
What Blount Jr. wrote in reply was an explanation of the ways by which dirt eating might be denied or defended, and how a New York soiree-sophisticate might be put in her place. Find yourself a copy – Roy Blount Jr., “I Don’t Eat Dirt Personally.”  You’ll thank me. With that, I thought the matter was settled.
Au contraire (as they say at sophisticated soirees). For the other day I found on “The Bitter Southerner” an article denying that dirt eating was waning and advising folks that the time had come for “Making Peace with the Age-Old Practice of Eating White Dirt.”
(For those who don’t know, “The Bitter Southerner” is a sorta on-line Southern literary soiree that also deserves your attention, whether you are bitter or not.)
The article pointed out that, indeed, Southerners eat dirt.  However, contrary to what folks who ain’t from around here apparently believe, Southerners do not go out, pick up a handful of red clay, and scarf it down – at least not on purpose.  Back in my football playing days, I occasionally found myself with a mouth full of football field dirt. It was not a pleasant experience. I spit it out.
Growing up in lower Alabama and bagging groceries in a small store that catered to a racially and socially mixed clientele, I heard folks talk about eating “eatin’ dirt.” One 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.
I thought of this back when I first read Blount Jr.’s article, for it confirmed that yes, indeed, Southerners do eat dirt. Now, thanks to the article in “The Bitter Southerner,” I find out 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, eating “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, a piece appeared in The New York Times announcing 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 this very month a “juicing chain,” owned in part by another actress, is “introducing a one-ounce bentonite clay shot,” which some folks say will clean you out like a Roto-Rooter.
Plans are in the works to turn it into a drink and bottle it. Still, there is 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 tooth paste 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.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. He can be reached at hjackson@jsu.edu.

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