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Gourmet Dirt

Published December 13, 2009 in The New York Times Magazine

Laura Parker, an artist and agricultural activist based in Northern California, asked a friend late last year to raise a 320-pound pig on his farm to see if its flavor would match that of the dirt it grew up on. In May, Parker and her friends butchered, slow-cooked and ate the pig while smelling soil from the same farm. At first, they were skeptical that they would recognize similarities between the dirt and the pig, which had been fed strictly local produce, bread and goat whey. But “it was harmony,” Parker says. Just to be sure, they tasted the pork while smelling soil from other farms, and it was obvious: in those other cases, there was no match.

“Grassy” and “creamy” are common terms for wine tasting, but now they’re being used to describe flavors of soil. Parker has held many similar tastings – primarily in art galleries, free to the public – with fresh dirt from local farms. “Soil is the basis of everything we eat,” she says.

During the tastings, Parker spoons dirt into stemmed wineglasses and adds a small amount of water – essentially making mud – to release the soil’s aroma. Tasters bury their noses in the wineglasses and sniff deeply. The dirt’s vapor molecules fall on the backs of tasters’ palates, and they taste what they smell. “It’s just like when you walk out after it rained,” Parker says, “and you say, ‘Oh, my God, that smells vibrant.’‚ÄČ”

After the soil smelling, she pairs the dirt with food from the same farm – collard greens, squash, radishes, even eggs and goat cheese. The tasters are quizzed to see if they can isolate the same flavors they savored in the dirt – earthy, peppery, citrusy – to demonstrate the connection between what people eat and where it’s grown. Next year, Parker will still hold her traditional tastings, but looking to this year’s pig as an example, she wants to think of new ways to eat dirt.

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