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Keep calm and rock salt on

I ate a lot of rock salt as a child.

I know, right? It sounds gross and wrong and downright dangerous. You are wondering: why and how? You may not believe me, but I promise I’m telling the truth and I’m going to answer your questions. Well … some of them.

A lot of people blame “falling on their head as a child” as the reason they are weird or foolish. I blame the rock salt and constantly offer it up as an explanation for my shortcomings.

You can’t wink? Why can’t you wink? Well, I ate a lot of rock salt as a child.

You like the taste of Robitussin? What is wrong with you? I’ve indulged in the salted rock from time to time.

You still aren’t watching “Parks and Rec”? What is your problem? Perhaps it was the rock salt?  NBD.

You get the idea.

Let me be clear, I’m not proud of what we did. Furthermore, it wasn’t exactly my idea to start sucking on the glamorous crystalized sodium. I was merely a dehydrated horse, being led to crisp, salty water.

It all started when I was 5 years old and living in Malden. My best friends were Carolina and Paolo, the Calabrese kids who lived around the corner. Although Carolina was a year older than I, we attended the same preschool; our moms met at drop-off one morning and realized they shared a language, and more importantly, a way of life. Inevitably, they became close friends, as did their daughters.

I liked spending time at Carolina and Paolo’s house. If it was possible, they were even more Italian than we were, and as such, always had the best snacks. It was a land flowing with Nutella and prosciutto, and I never wanted to leave. At 5 years old, snacks were pretty much the core of my social life, the center of my universe.

Carolina’s house also boasted two kitchens: one master kitchen and a second, smaller but fully functional unit in the basement. Although I didn’t understand the need for two kitchens, it was downright convenient and luxurious; it took playing “house” to a new level.

Like everyone, my memories from that year are fuzzy — recollections with frayed edges, vague beginnings and missing details. Some experiences, however, I remember clearer than others, and The Great Salting of 1986 is one of them.

She-ra

She-ra

We were playing in the second kitchen. After exhausting all possible permutations of “house” (I was married to Paolo and Carolina was our daughter, Carolina and I were farmers and Paolo was our dog, I was She-ra and Carolina and Paolo were cats) we decided to head outside to the swing set.

On our way out to the back yard we passed through an enclosed three-season porch that was being used for storage of gardening paraphernalia, miscellaneous snow shovels, and work tools.

You see where this is going, right?

“Ohhhh, we should have una caramella!” squealed Carolina.

Paolo, who was a year younger than I and not yet as verbal, merely nodded excitedly.

“A what?” I was confused, but excited.

“Una caramella … look!” Carolina pointed to a large bag that was sitting on the floor next to one of the shovels. “I’ve never had it, but I think it’s like … candy.” And with that, she pulled open the bag and delicately put her hand in the sack of wonders. I couldn’t see what was in there, and the suspense was KILLING me.

I didn’t have long to wait. Her hand quickly emerged, now shaped into a fist, with something tightly gripped inside. She unfolded her hand and showed me her palm, upon which laid the most beautiful crystals ever.

“Oooohhh … it is so pretty! It’s candy?! And it’s just sitting here?”

Best. House. Ever.

Carolina smiled while she gingerly handed a crystal to both me and Paolo. “I think so! I’ve always wanted to try it, but I’ve been scared. Let’s try it now!”

I was 5 and holding an edible gemstone in my hand; it didn’t take much to convince me. And so just like that, it was bottoms up. My taste buds were immediately assaulted with the salty wonderful candy.

“Can I have another one?”

“You haven’t even finished the one in your mouth. And besides, too much candy is bad for your teeth. So we can only have one.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but Carolina was older. I trusted her. She knew things.

And so began our regular ritual of sneaking rock salt. In all honesty, I don’t remember for how long it went on. Or how we rationalized a big bag of candy just sitting open for the taking. Or how we never got made by Carolina’s parents.

sale-grossoWhat I do remember is the afternoon, almost seven years later, when all of the briny details came rushing back to us and we finally figured out what exactly we had ingested.

We were in middle school, and neither of us lived in Malden any more. Carolina’s family had moved to Medfield, while the Festinos settled in Stoneham. Quite a bit had changed. We didn’t play house anymore; we played mall madness. I replaced my love for She-ra with a devotion to Dylan McKay. And snacks were no longer the center of my universe.

Oh, who am I kidding? Snacks were everything. Are everything. Will always be. Don’t judge.

In addition to afternoon Nutella noshes, the other thing that hadn’t changed was the strength of our friendship, which was unaffected by the distance and age. We couldn’t see each other on a daily basis, but our parents arranged for somewhat regular sleepovers and visits.

My family was visiting Medfield when the The Great Salting revelation happened.

We were seated in the dining room with our parents and had just finished Sunday dinner. While Carolina’s mom brought out some fruit and finocchio, we began reminiscing about the good old days, our time in Malden, and the silly shenanigans we pulled as younger children. One story led to another and before you know it — boom! We’re talking about le caramelle on the porch.

As the words started pouring out of our mouths, we began to realize that what we had consumed wasn’t altogether … right. The quizzical look on our parents’ faces confirmed that something was amiss with our tale of abundant crystalized candy. Carolina’s dad, Gregorio, was the first to burst into laugher, having solved the puzzle. “Rock salt! You ate rock salt?! What is wrong with you?”

Carolina, Paolo and I all looked at one another in horror and shame. What was wrong with us?

We didn’t have an answer for that question. I still don’t. I can’t very well blame the rock salt consumption for the rock salt consumption. Or can I?

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.