My late mother had this thing about dirt, said kids need to play in it to keep healthy. Turns out, she was right; some medical researchers are saying kids nowadays get sicker, more often, because they aren’t exposed to common germs that help build natural defenses.
I’m not much of a dirt eater, though I had my share as a kid, and my doctor says I need to hold back on salt which is pretty close since it is dug out of the ground.
But while doing a little volunteer school gardening work in Africa for the American Horticulture Society, I visited several local farm markets to see what was being grown locally and was a bit surprised to find stalls offering small bags of dried dirt. It was mostly white, brown or reddish clay, sold as food supplements for folks with mineral deficiencies
There is a many-centuries tradition of this, all over the world. Modern scientists call it geophagy, which isn’t the eating disorder known as pica; it’s a real urge to get something nutritious. You yourself may have taken it as medicine if you ever had a stomach upset and took a swig of Kaopectate, which is simply a watery slurry of chalky kaolinite clay.
There are special places in Mississippi where the “right” kind of clay can be found by folks who partake of dirt. The only recipe I have ever tried was a simple thick paste of pure clay and water, spread on a cookie sheet and baked until hard and nearly sterile. We broke it into small crunchy chunks and ate it with a little cooking vinegar, which spiced it up and its acidity helped release more nutrients.
Dad always kept a dirt pile on hand in his great big yard for filling tree trunk and root holes and where dogs kept digging. Wilma Gene took it to a higher level. Every new grandchild was given a designated dirt pile. A whole truckload, piled out in the backyard for each kid and his or her toys. I have photos of my own kids getting healthy while happily digging in their personal piles.
I’m thinking about all this as I dig a new flower bed, mixing sweet compost with real dirt, which is important to keep lots of in a planting mix. I’ll keep it there, though — not in the kitchen.