In 1984, the New York Times published an article on the declining trend of geophagy. If you think people would turn to eating a handful of soil in only the most dire circumstances, then you haven’t met Mrs. Glass. “It just always tasted so good to me,” said Mrs. Glass, a resident of rural Mississippi, in her interview with the Times. “When it’s good and dug from the right place, dirt has a fine sour taste.”
For many years, geophagy was part of the culinary tradition of the rural South, where the practice had been imported with the slave trade from West Africa. Dirt eating was relatively widespread in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and almost exclusively engaged in by poor women who grew accustomed, even preferential, to the taste.
The same Mrs. Glass, who was at the time of her interview in the process of giving up the practice, wistfully added, “There are times when I really miss it. I wish I had some dirt right now.”
The dirt of choice for Southerners was clay, which does in fact have some medicinal qualities to it; depending on the source, it can have high levels of calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, and zinc, all of which are important for human health, and, in the case of pregnant women—who occasionally engaged in geophagy across cultural groups—crucial for it. The soils of West Africa and the American South happen to be rich in these minerals, which might explain the development and continuation of the practice.