The stigma against the practice has persisted for centuries — but a new book shows it may actually be good for us.


If dirt, as William James put it, is matter out of place, then the dirtiest dirt of all is the kind you put where you’re absolutely not supposed to: in your mouth. We teach children not to eat dirt even before they can talk; conversely, telling someone to eat dirt is a powerful expression of contempt, a way of demoting them from human to animal. Yet as Sera L. Young explains in her quirkily informative book “Craving Earth: Understanding Pica,” eating dirt — in particular, certain kinds of dry, crumbly clay, as well as other non-food substances like uncooked starch, chalk and ice — is a very widespread human practice, and always has been. Pica, as this behavior is known — the name comes from the Latin word for “magpie” — is especially common among pregnant women.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThis has been recognized since ancient times: Hippocrates, the 5th-century BC Greek physician, noted that pregnant women often had cravings for earth or charcoal, and a classic Indian poem describes a pregnant queen who “set her heart upon clay in preference to all other objects of taste.” Today, Young reports, Americans with pica buy boxes of chalk at Walmart, or bags of ice (the cubes at the Sonic fast-food chain seem to be especially popular), or even order prime Georgia dirt over the Internet.


About Excitable Ape

Today is the best day of my life! I am the Artist In Residence of the Chicago Council on Science and Technology. I work as an expert in science communication for Harvard University. Along with my wife, the comics artist Sharon Rosenzweig, I create comics and comic videos for the Annals of Internal Medicine. I express my passion for promoting science literacy by creating science education materials that makes people laugh out loud.
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