Friday, March 4, 2011


IAKONKWE (Womankind) by John Fadden, 1981. Acrylic on canvas.

Many creation stories tell of humans being molded from clay or dirt. It's only fitting, that people all over the world have been known to eat dirt straight from the earth since the beginning of time. It's as natural and essential as drinking water.

Eating dirt, chalk or clay is one of the “old timey ways" that southerners practiced for health maintenance. It was widely practiced among enslaved Africans, mostly pregnant women, who historians say brought the tradition from Africa.

South African woman selling clay chips (dirt) for people to eat. Photo: Ahmad Nadalian ( or

Eating clay is also practiced in Native American and Appalachia communities as well as in India, Haiti, China – all over the globe. Today, the tradition is near forgotten and extinct in many rural southern communities in the U.S. But eating clay is alive and well today among alternative medicine and naturopathic advocates and anyone who takes responsibility for their own good health. If you’ve ever used colon cleansing products, then you’ve probably taken bentonite which is clay. Bentonite pulls toxins and heavy metals from your colon while giving your body much needed minerals.

So, what’s to this eating dirt or clay?

Eating clay is one of the best things humans can do for health maintenance. Its technical term is called Geophagy, and the craving for it is called pica. Clay absorbs toxins and heavy metals from your colon and its mineral content (which varies from region to region) contains high levels of calcium, iron, copper and magnesium, all essential for the human diet and critical during pregnancy. Good stuff! Montmorillonite clay or bentonite is the clay most often ingested and used for health benefits and colon cleansing.

Here’s how it works: “Living clay sweeps away pathogens, heavy metals, and toxins from your colon. The clay first absorbs toxins (heavy metals, free radicals, pesticides), attracting them to its extensive surface area and then taking them in like a sponge. The clay and toxins are removed with each bowel movement. Parasites are unable to reproduce in the presence of clay.” I use bentonite clay along with a bulk fiber like psyllium at least once a month to maintain good colon health. And, you need to drink plenty of water so you don’t get backed up.

Below are three excerpts from the book Working the Roots about eating clay. The first one is from Luisah Teish, born and raised in New Orleans, pictured in the center below. Luisah shared this remedy with Eveline Prayo-Bernard (l) and Bonita Sizemore (r) during a luncheon at the home of Yacine Bell in Oakland, CA, 1997.

Photo: Michele Lee, 1997

“They say as a child I used to eat red brick dust. That’s what scared my father about me. You know, Mississippi clay dirt is medicine when you pregnant. We used to feed women Mississippi clay dirt and I remember folks sendin for dirt from Mississippi and eat starch until they got it. I remember my Aunt Marybelle Reed, bless her heart. She was in that in between place. Because she knows all this root stuff and she’d also gone to nursing school so she had a foot in both worlds. Aunt Marybelle Reed would send for Mississippi clay dirt. And she would put it on a cookie sheet and run it in a slow oven sumtin like 250 degrees. And she would leave it in over night, pull it out and pound it and give pregnant women Mississippi clay dirt. For the mineral content.”
Luisah Teish, author, storyteller, and priestess of the Ifá/Orisha faith, 1997. (

The second excerpt about eating dirt is from Imani Ajaniku, a priestess in the Lucumi and Voudoun faith. Imani was raised in New York by parents from the south who migrated north for a better life. She is pictured below in her store, Botanica Ellegua, which she operated from 1996-2008 in Oakland, CA.

“The most vivid memory I have about being in the south is my grandfather going outside in the backyard, grabbing a chicken, wringing its neck, plucking it and serving it for dinner. The other thing I remember is the dirt. It is very red, and it’s very rich, and my mom used to eat it all the time. And, later in life, she would eat Argo Starch. I know there’s definitely a correlation between eating, the dirt and the starch.” Imani Ajaniku, 2008

Photo: Asual Aswad, 2008

The third and last excerpt about eating dirt is a personal memory that I have from my childhood and also a conversation between me (Michele Lee, aka Red Roots) and Nora Dockery, my former grandmother in-law from Laurel Hill, North Carolina.

As a child, growing up in Oakland, our backyard was literally a hill that lead up to a huge depression in the earth we called Devil’s Punchbowl. Today it is known as Merritt College. Devil’s Punchbowl was a hotspot for riding mini bikes, dirt bikes and pure adventure away from anyone of authority. Whenever it rained, the earth smelled so rich and looked delicious, almost like chunky dark chocolate. I’d put my nose close, inhale deep and then scoop some dirt to nibble on. It tasted so satisfying and primal.

For many years, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I relished eating dirt, wet dirt, and loved its smell. I never heard mention of it again until I was in my mid-thirties when I visited my former grandmother in-law, Nora Dockery (who everyone called Granny), in Laurel Hill, North Carolina. One afternoon Granny shares her craving for eating clay:

“I gots a hankerin to eat me some chalks from the side of the road.”

“Chalk? Like the kind you use on a blackboard?” I ask bewildered.

“No. Not the kind you use in the school house. . . the kind you gets from the road, down yonder, near Sneeds Grove,” Granny explains.

Red dirt from a southern hill side in Alabama

“Chalk on the road?” I was trying to visualize this place but drew a big blank. By now, Granny was real frustrated with my ignorance and her loss of words to explain to me what was so commonplace to southerners. She continues:

“I used to eat it when I was pregnant; women jus get a taste for it. We calls it chalk, but it’s really just dirt.”

“Oooohhh! I get it.” Finally, someone to share my dirt nibbling secret with, I thought in comfort."

Granny's house, aka Nora Dockery on Bunch Road. Laurel Hill, North Carolina, 1999. Photo: Michele Lee

If eating clay is a practice you'd like to include in your health regimen, do your research first. Visit your local health food store and/or consult a naturopathic practitioner before you rekindle what your ancestors have been doing for centuries. And be careful, not all dirt or clay from the earth is good to eat. People who have practiced this tradition go to the same location their ancestors have gone to for decades.

This post written by Michele Elizabeth Lee aka Red Roots for Working the Roots blog


  1. From Gary Eugene Jefferson:

    On every street in Port-Au-Prince Haiti and you will find people selling "clay pies." In Georgia they call it “sweet dirt.” Many people Even today find red dirt as a singular means of survival. For many it is all they have to eat throughout the world … That is where they got the expression, “eat dirt.” You will if you have no choice.

  2. From Dianne Durham:

    What a thorough and informative post! Several years ago I worked with pregnant teens, and I distinctly remember one teen telling me that she frequently had the urge to eat chalk. I thought this was strange, but knew that pregnant women often crave what their bodies need. Still, I dissuaded her from eating chalk. I do wish I had been aware of the information you've posted here as this would have made for an incredible teaching moment on several levels! I look forward to reading more great info, and will try to think of any home remedies my ancestors told me about that I can share!

  3. Wow, Michele, I love your post! Like you, I nibbled in eating dirt, too! When we were kids living in Compton, there was a small dirt patch between the home of our neighbors and our own. One day, my older sister, myself and couple of friends decided to make mud pies. While I realized I hadn't seen anyone add any sugar to the mix, I was still excited by the prospect of eating pie. When the mud pie was finished, everyone looked to me to be the taster. The youngest, I loved the attention, even if I had to do something as dumb as eat a dog biscuit. (Dang, did I mention that?!) Anyway, I didn't eat the whole piece of mud pie. One taste was enough for me to march right into the kitchen and begged my Mom for a cookie to get that nasty taste out of my mouth.

    I also ate clay, but it was play dough. Gotta tell you, it was salty, but deelicious! lol

    Michele, your site is refreshing, fascinating and wonderfully educational! I love your writing style and the photos! Glad I stopped by! Looking forward to your next post!

  4. I love this Redemptively Wonderfull! The information is affirming and confirmation of the fact that "Truth Never Dies". Though Mama Sally McCloud Say, "When you die, you take the knowledge wit ya"...there Remains a Remnant of the Soul, still to Be Known. Blessings to All my Family!

  5. Great article speaking on the practice of eating earth that is considered by some people all over the world as normal. I love the taste of clay/earth and have eaten it all my life.

  6. I eat it to. If you want to buy some dirt and get good service go to

  7. If anyone knows where to her it or has access to it I would love a nice bag of red clay dirt.. I crave it so bad but can never find anywhere to get it. If you can help email me at I will pay if necessary and reasonable.

  8. i am relieved because i eat a lot of white clay sold here in Cape Town