Eat Dirt: The Mainstreaming of a Curious Craving
One of my favorite scent memories is the wet red mud in Nairobi. I've always thought that the earth there, right after it rains, smells good enough to eat. Though I've never eaten it, last year when I was doing some research, I chatted with a guy in Georgia who carries white clay in his store. He sells it in two-pound bags to people who crave the flavor or swear by the health benefits. He told me that despite marketing it as a novelty, he'd sent the soil as far as Alaska to be eaten.
Here's a bit from an old Time magazine piece on American mud-eating, published in 1942:
Many a homesick or sardonic Northern Negro, writing to Southern friends, says "Ship me a bag of good dirt to eat." Sometimes he means it. Even in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Negroes and whites send requests to their upcountry friends for a bit of red clay, declaring that black Delta soil is "right bad eating." In certain parts of Mississippi, poor whites will walk miles for a spoonful of dirt from a favorite bank of clay, because it "tastes sour, like a lemon." In other sections of the South, some top their meals with a savory tablespoon of dirt, believing that it is "good for them," despite its constipating effects.
There's something about missing a place so dearly that you actually want to consume its earth. It seems like the most perfect expression of homesickness. By the way, The Oxford American has a really wonderful piece about the Southern tradition of geophagy (the official term for dirt-eating).
But to the point: A few weeks ago, Time magazine wrote about eating dirt again! This time it's about fine dining restaurants like Copenhagen's Noma, San Francisco's Marlowe, New York's Gilt, and Silicon Valley's Manresa all using dirt for garnish and flavor, or to anchor components onto the plate. But the dishes the author mentions in the article don't use actual soil:
Edible dirt—perhaps one of the strangest fads to hit haute cuisine since sous vide—is not actual dirt but rather dried or charred ingredients used to give menu items an extra-earthy kick.
Drying and charring ingredients is neither strange nor a fad. We've been drying and charring ingredients since we could cook! In a sense, that's what cooking is. What the Time article is really referring to is using powders, specifically, in a way that might look and taste a little like earth.
There are chefs cooking with actual dirt too. Like, from the ground. Though these chefs aren't mentioned in the article, Elena Arzak of Restaurante Arzak makes a sauce in which a tiny amount of composted dirt is an ingredient, and one of the more iconic dishes by Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz involves potatoes painted with clay to look like stones.
When Time last wrote about eating dirt, the Southerners who enjoyed it were considered quaint. This happens all the time, but isn't it amazing how an ingredient—a cut of meat, a shellfish, you name it—can cross the borders between high and low culture?
If dirt is on a plate at a fine dining restaurant, I don't think it's to get away with feeding people mud. Nor do I think it's a flippant reference to the cultures of eating mud, which are often rooted in starvation, or in desperation.
But then why? The article suggests that it's because right now, and especially at the restaurants mentioned, there's a celebration of the soil and what it yields. There's a fascination with ingredients' origins.
Maybe. But putting dirt on a plate also reveals the chef's superpower, which is to alter the value of something just by including it on a plate. In the case of dirt, I hope it tastes as good as it smells.
What do you think about dirt—actual and trompe l'oeil—on the plate?