Not that fancy “Down Home White Dirt” that’s professionally harvested in Griffin, Georgia either. I went all-in for local dirt that’s brought to market by bootleg dirt vendors tilling the clay hills of Alabama.When I was a teenager I loved exploring Bessemer. The old iron town was founded in 1887, and became nationally important as a hub for the production of iron ore. As recently as 1950 Jefferson County had 11 active iron ore mines with an annual production of 6 million usable tons.
Those big fine American automobiles your daddy used to drive? The steel used in their production often came from Bessemer.None of that interested me as a teen. I just liked riding my motorbike around the city taking pictures, eating at Bright Star or Giglio’s and rambling through the old downtown. The first voudou store I ever visited was in Bessemer.
When Motörhead came to Alabama to rock their Orgasmatron LP they didn’t come to Birmingham; they came to the Bessemer Civic Center, and brought the Bang Gang along for the ride. We loaded up a bunch of punks and heshers in our Hondas and Datsuns and took the 20 minute drive to Bessemer like life itself hung in the balance.They tore the house down.
Last month I was planning a visit to Birmingham and doing what I always do when I’m plotting a course; sifting through local media and just generally taking the lay of the land. WBRC, a Bham TV station had decided to send a reporter to Hello Market, a tiny, run-down meat market off Jaybird Road near the northern fringe of Bessemer’s old downtown.
Along with every kind of meat you could imagine, the reporter had also discovered “sour dirt” on the market’s shelves. People in the Deep South have been eating dirt for centuries. Known by scholars as geophagy, the practice continues today and not only in the rural south. People across the globe are eating dirt.Why?
Sera Young of Cornell University has spent 20 years studying the practice – beginning in Tanzania where she was interviewing a pregnant woman who casually mentioned that she liked digging dirt out of her home’s walls and ingesting it twice a day.
Young was shocked and her path to scholarship was set. Over the next two decades she threw herself into her studies and became recognized as an authority on the ingestion of dirt. Most surprising is that the practice can become habitual and habit forming.You can become addicted to eating dirt.
I have to try a little bit so I mention to Carlos, the shopkeep that I’d like a portion to gnaw on, he laughs “no problem my friend” as he reaches under a cooler and pulls out a cardboard tray lined with what appears to be small rocks.
I take a tiny bit and pop it into my mouth. As my spit mingles with the clay dirt an alarming paste is formed. I grab a bottle of water out of a nearby cooler and wash the mud down my throat. Maybe dirt’s an acquired taste.I have several cooking projects over the next few days so I ask after a tray of pig’s feet. Carlos immediately cracks open a big freezer and pulls a few fistfuls out. Without a word he fires up a band saw and zips through each one before creating a tidy packet and handing it to me across the counter.
“What else can I get you my friend?” he smiles.I thank him for the dirt and mention that I’ll have to be on my way. I’m heading out to the woods of Kimberly, Alabama for a supper party.
As I ride along the near-shattered blacktop of the expressway I’m left to think of the curious luxury that sour dirt must be to some.Its consumption will never be mistaken for being elegant or refined but by virtue of it’s oddness, its peculiarity, to more mundane feeders, it achieves just that; a little rural luxury courtesy of the folkways of the rural south.
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Here’s the Motorhead set list from the show. I stumbled upon it when I was doing research for the piece. I remember not being old enough to drink so I smuggled in a flask of whiskey. The night soon devolved into a blur of flashing elbows in the pit of Motörhead’s monstrous drone.
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