The Flavor of Dirt

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I've just returned from a gourmet grocery store. Walking out of the store with a couple of shopping bags full of nice stuff to eat gives me a feeling that I think must be akin to the feeling "It's good to be the king." I think back, every time, to my undergraduate days: as an unemployed student without a meal ticket I had less than ten dollars a week to spend on food, and my diet consisted primarily of rice, cheese, carrots, and peanut butter.

Aside from dentistry, food is the best measure of the rise in my financial well-being from childhood to my current age of nearly 52 years. My mother spent as little as possible on food. She used to buy large blocks of corn meal mush, slice it and fry it in oleo. I loved it. She made meat loaf that I liked and salmon loaf with canned salmon, which I wasn't so crazy about, and chipped beef on toast, which I didn't like at all.

I've already described my undergraduate diet. As a graduate student with a teaching assistantship I ate a lot of ramen, but I also bought pastries from the bakery and take-out Chinese food. Now I buy fresh produce at any price: small plastic boxes of berries, occasional papayas, and baby squash. As I write this there's an artichoke boiling on the stove; when it's close to ready I'll melt some of the imported Irish butter I bought today. There's still a limit to what I'll spend on food. I won't spend more than about $8 on a bottle of wine, and I've never tasted caviar or truffles. Which is why I know that I've not yet reached the pinnacle of my culinary indulgence.

As a child I was a dirt eater. I wish I could remember the first time I tried eating dirt; perhaps I did it on a dare, or maybe it was just the natural tendency of a two-year-old to put anything and everything in her mouth. In either case, I attribute it to my brother and I having spent many hours playing outside, unattended, when we were very small (see Licking The Swingset). I was fussy about the dirt I ate. It had to be dry, "clean" dirt, meaning free of any obviously organic or unidentifiable elements. It had to be dirt that had never known mulch-- dirt that had been washed by many rainfalls. The untended portion of the backyard, on the periphery of the swingset, was an excellent source of good clean dirt. Although my mother reacted with mild disgust to my dirt-eating, I was never punished for it. Two unrelated wives' tales no doubt converged to spare me: my mother believed that we all eat a peck of dirt in our lifetime, and she also believed that every craving was the body's way of fulfilling a need.

People often complain that some things don't taste as good as they smell-- fresh bread and coffee are two examples. I'm telling you now, speaking with authority, that dirt tastes as good as it smells. Anybody who has worked a garden knows the wonderful, "earthy" smell of freshly turned dirt. This is the flavor of dirt, precisely-- it's earthy. I don't know if my palette would appreciate the flavor of dirt anymore; too many years of kung pao chicken and vindaloo have undoubtedly dulled my sense of taste. Although I loved the flavor as a child, some inhibition of adulthood prevents me from tasting the dirt in my backyard today.

But... I've heard truffles described as having an "earthy" flavor, and I've often wondered without irony if truffles taste like dirt, and if so, are they as good? As a child, would I have rejected a truffle while relishing the dirt in which it grew? Someday, when Mike has finished school and is gainfully employed, I intend to spend quite a lot of money to do a "truffles vs. dirt" taste test (comparing the flavor of the truffles with my memory of the flavor of dirt). If truffles do indeed taste like dirt, I expect that before I retire (and give up the income that will make it possible) I'll indulge a craving for truffles, thus recapturing a pleasure that I enjoyed free of charge when I was three.


Never knew this before, Mar! I agree with your mom; it must've been some mineral you were trying to get.

Wine at $8: you need to attend a winetasting; some wines genuinely are worth more (though not all!). Perrier Jouet champagne (it runs nearly $100/bottle) is worth every penny; it is what champagne is advertised to be.

I've had caviar, and either my palate is too unsophisticated to care, or I haven't had "the good stuff." I like the capers and creamcheese that's often served with it, and they aren't the expensive part.

Truffles: if we get together sometime again, let's see if we can't manage to track down a place to taste 'em together! I haven't had the pleasure either...


Hmm, can't say I ever had the desire to eat dirt. You never told me about this :-p

Oh well, some people like weird things hah


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