Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Looking for Some Really Good Dirt

Remember mud pies when you were a kid? You could make them without a stove or help from the grownups...just a little water, some dirt, preferable dark and musty, and voila...a tasty treat. And although a little gritty, and occasionally wormy, the result was strangely satisfying and oddly natural.

Alas, there was always the moment when the grownups discovered your culinary adventure, and would scream in horror for you to stop. Usually a thorough washing of the hands and mouth followed, and a stint in the corner of your bedroom.

Well, as it turns out, your natural inclination towards dirt delicacies was a healthy habit ingrained by evolution, according to new research. In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

The research says that it is instinctive for babies to constantly picking things up from the floor or ground and put them in their mouths, and that’s how babies explore the world. But why the mouth, when sight, hearing, touch and even scent are far better at identifying things?

One researcher even noticed how children would enjoy good crushed rock or dried dog droppings and then turn down delicious mashed potatoes.

According to the research: “Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species. And, indeed, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you.”

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

Meanwhile, good parents everywhere have apparently been doing the opposite of what nature intended. Everywhere you look, parents are slathering antibacterial lotions and soaps on their kids and anything they touch. Kids for the most part aren’t even allowed to play in the dirt anymore, yet their Wii remote and their pacifiers are sanitized to hospital operating room standards. (Which actually ain’t that good. Could it be the pandemic of operating room staph infections is somehow related to the lack of dirt in our diet?)

The other problem is the quality of the dirt in our yards in today’s times. A good dirt yard is sort of like mine: full of organic, live bacteria and dog droppings. The look of our good dirt yard is is witnessed by the plethora of weeds, some edible including dandelions, wild strawberries and daisies. I tell my wife that this is the reason I like the weeds in our yard. If I was to hit it with chemicals, great looking grass would grow, but make the dirt inedible.

Bad dirt yards are easy to spot and they are everywhere. Perfectly green grass and manicured landscaping gives it away. This look equals weed killers like Roundup, fertilizers imbued with stuff to make bombs with (no kidding) and heavy metals. Perhaps eating this dirt inoculates kids from future toxins but the bacteria is mostly dead. And forget the dog droppings....last I heard its a $200 dollar fine in Wrightsville Beach for leaving well enough alone.

For grins, I tried to make a mud pie from the soil of my next door neighbors yard, who has the most obnoxiously beautiful grass and plants I have ever seen. (my wife reminds me of it daily). I also for the sake of a controlled experiment took the same amount of mud pie ingredients from my organic yard. Using the same amount of water on both soils, I put both mixes into a standard pie pan and let sit for about an hour.

The results were amazingly different considering the source soils where just one yard (not the unit of measure) apart and from the same neighborhood. My neighbor’s mud pie was sort of cement smelling to the nose, pasty to the tongue, strangely devoid of any organic overtones and it left a metallic aftertaste that I could not shake. Worse, for some reason my arms went numb for about 15 minutes.

After regaining the use of my hands and thoroughly washing my mouth out with soap, (like my mother used to do) I tried the pie from my yard. It had a sort of sweetness to the nose, and while gritty, actually had some chewiness to it. It even seemed to have an essence of fine escargot and truffles, which may explain the movement I detected just beneath the surface of the pie. The finish was reminded me of a combination of arugula and sweet strawberries that may have been allowed to ferment for some period.

I asked my wife to try the pies as well to help confirm my findings. She refused because according to her: “I don’t like mushrooms or escargot, and I want a yard like our neighbors! I don’t care how good our yard tastes! Have you lost your mind?!

No comments: