Professor Digs Into Geophagy Research

April 7, 2010
SHSU Media Contacts: Jennifer Gauntt

This bank, along side a road near Midnight, Miss., is one location where clay regularly "mined" for consumption, according to Strait.     —Submitted Photo

There is a soul food restaurant on the south side of Chicago where busses of tourists stop to get a taste of Deep South cuisine: chitlins, greens and a side of pan-fried clay.

Throughout his years of researching as an urban and socio-economic geographer, Sam Houston State University associate professor of geography John Strait has encountered a number of people who practice geophagy, the eating of clay or soil-like substances.

Strait has eaten the “side dish,” what he said is served in Chicago like a condiment.

“It looked like what I would say are cucumbers, but they were slices of clay, and it was pan-fried, served with vinegar and pepper,” he said.

The tradition of geophagy extends back to Native Americans, with evidence indicating that it was practiced in varying degrees throughout the Americas.

“It’s been here before the Europeans, but if you exclude that aspect of the tradition, you’re probably looking at the earliest presence of slaves, in which case you’re talking in the New World as a whole, in 1619,” Strait said, adding that geophagy is common throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the source of most slaves that came to North America.

“I would describe the existence of it (in America) in that manner, because the Victorian tradition wouldn’t have adopted something from Native Americans to begin with, other than eating corn when it was necessary to live,” he said. “It would be safe to say that the American population did not adopt this from Native Americans.”

After the Civil War the Mississippi Delta area became more densely populated by African Americans, some of whom eventually moved north to such places as Chicago during the Great Migration that occurred during the course of the 20th century.

“Geophagy is practiced everywhere; it’s not specific to the black population,” Strait said. “A lot of the work that I do focuses on African influences, and in the Deep South it’s generally perceived to be strongly prevalent because of African slaves brought here.”

Strait’s research in “blues culture” encompasses the broader cultural environment from which the music evolved, which is informed by and reflects the cultural conditions that make the Delta somewhat unique—Jim Crow segregation; cotton agriculture; sharecropping; poverty; economic, social and political apartheid; maintenance of African traditions, including food traditions such as geophagy; and a host of African expressions, including religion.

“In places like the Mississippi Delta, where my research has taken me, there is a fairly strong presence of African culture historically and has been since it was settled, so it’s where African traditions are most strongly maintained,” he said. “It’s also somewhat rural.”

While the practice has been viewed as “backward” and generally has a stigma attached to it, or an association with poverty, there are a number of reasons why people consume clay.

“People take Kaopectate, which is technically clay, for a stomachache; some people say they eat it because it tastes good; in Haiti, they obviously eat it because that’s what’s available,” he said.

Geophagy is still evident in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes consumed for ritual or religious purposes, as well as in some places as a sexual stimulant.

"In fact, what I can tell at this point is that among white southerners, the two populations who would consume it the most were pregnant women and young kids, primarily for dietary purposes, for nutritional purposes. When you have a limited diet, or possess specific dietary needs (like that of pregnant women), it would alleviate deficiencies,” Strait said. “But also among white men who perceived this to be something that would make them more sexually virile.”

Among those living in the Mississippi Delta region today, the average African American under the age of 50 has probably never heard of the practice, and even older people who may have been familiar with the tradition likely don’t look favorably upon it now, according to Strait.

“I only know six or seven people whom I’ve talked to in person that claim to have eaten it,” he said. “A colleague of mine, who works in the Delta and whom I have worked with for these field classes (taking students to the region during the summer), has talked with people who claim to remember eating it when they were kids.”

Otha's Soul Food Restaurant in Chicago is one of the places Strait has seen clay from Midnight, Miss., marketed.     —Submitted Photo

However, in places like juke joints, blues clubs and soul food restaurants such as the one in Chicago, clay can still be purchased. Strait recalled witnessing this with Asian tourists when he revisited a Chicago restaurant, whose owner also ran a beauty salon.

“I found out by talking to the owner that there are a couple of tours that come through the neighborhood fairly frequently, and they come in and eat soul food for the first time,” he said. “Then I realized that pretty soon, you started seeing these jars of clay with nicer labels and labeled Mississippi, so you have Mississippi clay being sold to an Asian tourist in Chicago. I have witnessed this kind of thing on a number of occasions.

“It’s actually become part of the culture that’s being consumed, literally, by someone else. If they want to experience African American culture for a day, they go there; eat the food, eat the clay, in a nice authentic place; get their hair done; get their picture taken,” he said. “I don’t think that’s really wide-spread, and I don’t think you could go to every place and see all these tourists from around the world going to eat clay, but in that particular incident, there were certainly tourists.”

This, in part, is where the geography comes into play.

“As a geographer, one of the things that interested me most was not that there’s this tradition where people eat clay but that people perceive certain clays to have certain properties and certain qualities based on where it’s from,” Strait said.

“It goes beyond just the soil quality, just as people in France will tell you it’s not just the soil that makes French wine the best; it’s how the grapevine is cultivated, it’s how its pruned, it’s because ‘we’re the best wine makers in the world.’ There’s a sort of territoriality about it,” he said. “I think that’s what’s evident here. Certain clays from certain places are perceived to have this quality because of people expressing an attachment to home, literally and figuratively.

“Being a geographer, I’m interested in geographical variation over space, why this aspect of culture is different here than over there,” he said. “So even the same cultural practice, consuming something, might manifest itself differently in different regions.”

The idea of geophagy as an area of study is relatively unforaged; Strait said he had never considered it an area of “expertise” until he was approached by a “Food & Wine” magazine reporter. He and a colleague are planning an oral history project on geophagy, documenting and interviewing people about their personal experiences with the practice.

“It just dawned on me when this woman called that I guess I know a little bit about this and there’s no one else that I know that seems to know a lot more, so it seems to be something that’s been ignored,” he said.

“It’s something that has really piqued my interest in trying to give this writer information,” he said. “It seems unique, it’s something I can involve students with and it fits in with some of the other stuff that I do that focuses on blues culture because it’s essentially somewhat specific to that cultural environment. Plus, I think it’s pretty cool; not too many people you run across do research on people eating dirt.”


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