My Geophagy Problem--and Yours

WHEN WE READ items in The New York Times to do with human behavior or the physical universe or so on, our reaction is, “Well, this is certainly On Solid Ground.” Not long ago the Times revealed that scientists had discovered that people who were told not to think about a white bear had a lot more thoughts about a white bear than people who weren’t told not to think about a white bear. I forget the exact figures. Any day I expect the Times to disclose research establishing that some strikingly low percentage of people know you when you’re down and out.

So when the Times runs something that reflects on me as a southerner, I can’t just dismiss it as off the wall. I have to explain it to the people I live among, which is to say northerners. One morning I picked up the Times and saw my work cut out for me. Here was the headline: “SOUTHERN PRACTICE OF EATING DIRT SHOWS SIGNS OF WANING.”

“While it is not uncommon these days to find people here who eat dirt,”the story said, many southerners “are giving up dirt because of the social stigma attached to it.”

Now, I would be willing to argue, in a quasi-agrarian way, that the giving up of dirt is part of the downside of modern life. The giving up of eating dirt, however, is a subject that I frankly kind of resent having to discuss. And not because it hits too close to home. The truth is, I never started eating dirt. The stigma attached to dirt-eating is one of a handful of stigmas that I have never even considered feeling. But try telling that to northerners.

People who attend fashionable northern soirees read The New York Times. The very night of the dirt-eating story, I was in someone’s chic salon earing arugula. A woman with a crewcut heard my accent.

“What do you do?” she asked.

I said I was a writer.

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Of course. Southerners are all natural storytellers. Sitting on the old screen porch, dog under the rocker, flies on the baby, everyone spitting and spinning yarns compounded of biblical cadences and allusions to animals named B’rer.”

“One thing I never realized, though,” she went on, “was that you eat dirt.”

At that point there were two tacks I could take. I could say, “Well, I know there are some folks down south who like to chew on clay, but I never ate any myself and neither did any of my relatives or friends, and in point of fact I never even saw anybody eat dirt.”

The response to that tack would have been a knowing look. “Here is a man who comes from people who eat dirt and he thinks he is better than they are.” She would be thinking I couldn’t handle stigma. Or that I was inauthentic. Southern and inauthentic: the worst of both worlds.

So I took the second tack. “Hell, yes, we eat dirt,” I said. “And if you never ate any blackened red dirt, you don’t know what’s good. I understand you people up here eat raw fish.”But of course sushi was dead now, I told this northerner, and people were Cajuned out, and even New Zealand cuisine was about to go the way of Australian, and now that this big New Guinea place, Yam Yam, was so overpraised, I figured the time was ripe for investing in dirt restaurants.

None of the northerners I used this tack on had realized that it was time to be Cajuned out, even. The best way to get a northerner to believe something is to talk to him as if you assume that he knows it already and that most people don’t. I raised $3,800 in one evening. I figured when these investors came to me wondering what had happened to their money, I could admit that dirt-dining wasn’t quite happening yet after all—that when they had invested in it, it had been ahead of its time. Which would have consoled them more than you might think.


Uh-oh, I thought.

“The practice of eating dirt, usually fine clays, is so common in so many societies,” the Times story began, “that it must be regarded as a normal human behavior rather than an oddity, according to scientists who are studying it.”

Consider the difficulty of my position when the Times revealed that dirt-eating was known by experts as geophagy, and was no more peculiarly southern—or, for that matter, peculiar—than rabbits. “Historical records of earth-eating in Europe go back to 300 BC, when Aristotle described it,” the Times said.

The northerners wanted their investment back. Some of them had reached the conclusion that there was no real prestige value in dirt-earing. Others wanted to look into importing as-yet-underpriced French dirts. I told them I had plowed all their money into development.

WHAT I HAD done was send the money to my Uncle Mullet, who did eat dirt. When I said I never had any relatives who ate dirt, I wasn’t counting my Uncle Mullet, who is not my blood uncle and I never felt responsible for him, because he did everything, up to and including worship through snakebite. He wasn’t typical of anybody’s family. He had armadillos and lived with a woman named Valvoline. He always did just exactly what nobody wanted him to, and wouldn’t even talk to anybody else in the family on the phone. Didn’t have a phone. So no wonder I would feel free to say that I never had any relatives who ate dirt.

But Uncle Mullet did, and one afternoon he went over to his favorite clayhole to dig some up, and a man dressed all in freshly-ordered-looking L. L. Bean clothing came out from behind a tree to wave a POSTED sign at him.

“Stranger,” the man said in a northern accent, “you are eating my land.”

“What do you mean, ’your land’?” my Uncle Mullet said. “This spot has been free for folks to come to for clay ever since I don’t know when.”

The northerner looked at him in a certain way.

“And what do you mean, ’eating'?” Uncle Mullet said. “I wouldn’t . . .”

And that’s what broke his spirit. After a lifetime of doing every awful thing he felt like, proudly, Uncle Mullet had denied to a northerner that he did something that he had always done. Had denied it just because the northerner had looked at him in a certain way enough times to make him feel looked at in a certain way.

And it disgusted Uncle Mullet to the point that he stopped trying to shift for himself, and everybody in the family had to start sending my Aunt Ravanne money to keep him up. (Valvoline dropped him.)

And of course the reason the man in the unbroken-in L. L. Bean outfit was protecting the old clayhole was that he had just bought all that area through there so he could get in on the ground floor of the chain of fine dirt restaurants that I had led him to believe, late one night in that chic salon, was about to happen.

We reap what we sow.