Eating the earth

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Photo credit: Bruce Lampros
WHITE DIRT: Kaolin is a soft white clay used in pottery, paper, rubber, paint ... and sometimes eaten

Among the rows of leafy greens and slabs of precisely butchered meats at Sweet Auburn Curb Market, you'll see it. Palm-sized pieces of bright white, chalky-looking material in a clear plastic bag marked "not for human consumption.' This is kaolin, familiarly known in the South as "white dirt,' and unless someone is looking for it, it's as noticeable as dirt often is, which is to say not at all. These same unremarkable sandwich bags may appear tossed casually in a box near the register or tucked into a shelf of pork rinds at a country gas station, leading some to wonder, "Why would I want to pay $1.99 for a bag of dirt?"

The truth is, many people are buying this white dirt for one purpose and one purpose only: to eat it.

Reactions to this fact often range from disbelief to horror. Older folks will offer in hushed whispers, "I knew someone who used to eat that clay,' as if the practice is shameful. And depending on the person, these stories are frequently coded with decades of racial politics and presumptions. Rarely do they yield much in terms of the legitimate reasons why one might want to eat kaolin.

Yet there's an array of science on why someone might crave the stuff. Geophagia, the scientific word for eating dirt, is one of several types of pica, the practice of craving "non-food' items, and has been recorded since at least 400 BCE. Often associated with anemia, the practice has puzzled medical science. Kaolinite is made up of aluminum and silicone, meaning there's little chance the mineral will cure an iron deficiency; some evidence shows it may exacerbate the problem. And while it was once the main ingredient in Kaopectate (the anti-diarrheal), the FDA reported in 2003 that there's not enough evidence to prove it effectively treats intestinal issues. Further studies have shown that ingesting kaolin may be straight-up dangerous, leading to severe impaction (as in a very painful traffic jam in one's colon).
DSC043711EARTH'S HISTORY: The striated cliffs of a kaolin mine in Sandersville, GeorgiaBruce Lampros
Data suggests that the craving is most common among women, particularly during pregnancy. In the context of the U.S. South, it's frequently associated with African-American women, though whether or not that's truth or the residue of faulty received wisdom remains up for debate.

In recent years, numerous media outlets, from the New York Times to NPR, have grappled with the practice, evoking equal parts exoticism and defensiveness, accusation and acceptance. There's even a famous Julia Sugarbaker monologue about it ("We have never I'll repeat NEVER eaten dirt!' she exclaims in classic "Designing Women" liberal Southern apologia fashion), and this year Adam Forrester released Eat White Dirt, a short documentary about why people find clay appetizing. The film, streaming now on PBS's "Reel South," interviews several women from rural black communities who admit to being "addicted' to kaolin. They go on to describe everything from how it's best served (extremely dry, even microwaved) to its best pairings: Coca-Cola and coffee. As one interviewee states, "It's old culture.?"

It's also big business, especially in Georgia. Here, we have what mining expert Andy Lowe of Thiele Kaolin Company describes as "the kaolin belt,' a swath of aluminum silicate stretching from Augusta to Columbus. Deposited some 45 to 100 million years ago, the mineral mined in our state each year values near $1 billion on the market, where it's used to make everything from paper to skin treatments. The reality is most humans have consumed kaolin in innumerable ways, even if they haven't eaten it. Figures from the Georgia kaolin industry show that the average American will use 2,005 pounds of the clay in his or her lifetime.
DSC041611CLAY MOTION: A group of people tours a local mine at the Sandersville Kaolin Festival.Bruce Lampros
But nowhere is the economic impact of kaolin bigger than in Sandersville, Georgia, a small town of just under 6,000, located about two and a half hours southeast of Atlanta. Here, they've hosted the annual Kaolin Festival each October since 1956, and as festival co-organizer Elaine Bussell explains, white clay still serves as the economic engine of the region.

Hosted by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and sponsored in large part by the area's mining companies, the Kaolin Festival has nothing to do with eating clay. In fact, like many other Southern small town celebrations, the main fare is barbecue. Featuring rides for children, an unusually compelling chicken show (the birds play the piano), booths educating visitors about the numerous uses of kaolin (with the notable exception of eating it), a parade, concerts by the local school bands, local vendors hawking homemade jams and pork rinds, and displays of the enormous mining equipment, it's a small but enthusiastic fall festival where most attendees seem like neighbors and friends.

Though I had come to Sandersville to learn about kaolin and hopefully chat with some folks about the mineral's complicated culinary history, it became immediately apparent that nobody was really interested in talking about clay as food. My own home training gave me the sense that to pursue that line of questioning too far would have been at best silly and at worst offensive. One person even recoiled slightly when I asked if it was in the whitening toothpaste she was selling. Having grown up in a town of 4,000 people myself, I'm sensitive to the feeling of outsiders from big cities asking condescending questions like, "Do you eat dirt?"

DSC051311CLAY FOR DAYS: A young girl holds a piece of kaolin at a mine in Sandersville, Georgia.Bruce LamprosThe highlight of the Kaolin Festival is a tour of a local mine. After exiting the charter bus, my fellow dirt tourists and I gathered around a large pile of clay, touching the chunks of eggshell-hued clay with wonder. Adults and children held it up the their noses, rubbed little pieces like earthy talismans. A bit heavier than it looks, soft to the touch with an occasional glint; I imagined it as salty, maybe even briny like fresh shellfish, or with the cool mineral notes of a Sauvignon Blanc. I kept a watchful, but ultimately fruitless, eye for the adventurous taster. Having not found any bags of white dirt for sale at the festival grounds, I also took the opportunity to swipe a few pieces from the mine for, um, research.

The tour guide was affable, knowledgeable, and judicious about the benefits and costs of the industry for the state's future. "So some people eat this, right?' I asked. "That's true,' he replied, but was adamant that while one can still find bags of white dirt for sale in small roadside stores around the state, it has no nutritional value. The other guests were noticeably weirded out by my questions, exchanging looks and murmurs while they glanced down at my sandwich bag of kaolin, likely guessing at its ultimate fate. Then I had to endure the 20-minute bus ride back to town as the woman who saw a pile of clay and asked for cooking tips.

This is the hard truth: There's a lot we don't talk about when we talk about food. It's easier to swap quirky stories about eating white dirt than to reckon with the complexity of a billion dollar mining industry. It's enjoyable to seek out that next culinary fad, but hard to acknowledge the continued economic privilege that suddenly makes offal appealing. We tussle over notions of authenticity and geographic difference in barbecue sauce but rarely grapple with labor issues surrounding meat-processing plants. We pat ourselves on the backs and full stomachs when we support "farm-to-table' enterprises, as if all food doesn't come from some farm to some table. And in the South, we have to acknowledge that our ideas about who eats what and why may never elude our collective history of racial oppression and continued class stereotypes. Just look at African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt's short story, "Lonesome Ben,' written in 1900 about white reformers and capitalists in North Carolina observing a black woman eating dirt from a vein of clay they hoped to turn into profitable bricks. Even over 100 years ago, Chesnutt recognized that we're all consuming the earth, but in radically unequal ways.

There's something poignant about staring out over the striated cliffs of a mine, its iron-rich red top layer followed by the white belt of kaolin striped with the occasional black of a coal deposit. Two hundred feet below sit crystal blue pools, reflecting the Georgia sky. It's several million years of Earth's history turned inside out, and like most encounters with the sublime, met with equal parts awe and dread.

But alas, I'm here as a food writer, not a geologist or an environmental historian. And my mother raised me with a single food rule: "Try everything.' So now, there's probably one question remaining in most readers' minds. The answer? It tastes like dirt.

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