by Elizabeth M. Williams, President of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum
People in New Orleans often have heated debates over which snoball stands produce the fluffiest shaved ice and which ones have the best homemade syrup. Like the king cake, snoballs are a seasonal treat.
Louisianians are ready to stand in a line that sometimes stretches down the block for these cool, sweet snacks. Shaved ice is an age-old tradition, but before the early 20th century, it had to be done by hand, and it was a lot of work. Eventually, some enterprising people fashioned machines to shave the ice, which greatly decreased the amount of time involved, making a snoball stand viable as a commercial enterprise even at the incredibly low price of 2 cents per serving. (That amounts to about 33 cents today.)
Notable among these early innovators was Ernest Hansen, founder of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. Ernest, a machinist, created his own snoball machine but opted against mass production. He and his wife, Mary, opened their Uptown New Orleans shop in 1939, which has been run by the family ever since. This year, the shop was named an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation.
A few years earlier, George Ortolano created the Snow-Wizard Snow-Ball Machine, a commercial ice-shaving machine, which made it possible for anyone to open a snoball stand. In addition to producing the device itself, the Ortolanos made “knock-down” metal stands to make it easier for people to start a snoball business. By the 1950s, those stands were popping up all over the Crescent City.
In many other parts of the country, people wait in line for snow cones. These are also made by machine but by crushing or grinding the ice, not shaving it. The crushed ice has a heavier, crunchier feel than the finely shaved ice and doesn’t meld as well with the syrup. For snoball cognoscenti, there is no snow cone that could hold a candle to a snoball.
Besides the appropriate “snow,” a flavored syrup is the other essential ingredient. While it is possible to buy pre-made syrup, the most famous stands make fresh, housemade varieties. Traditional flavors like nectar soda and bubble gum still show up on most menus, but new flavors that include spices, savory elements, and real juices offer a new depth of flavor.
In addition to the ice and syrup, today’s snoballs are oft en served with ice cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk, cherries, and even marshmallow crème. These overloaded snoballs definitely gild the lily. A favorite syrup on fluffy shaved ice can transform a hot day into something much more enjoyable.
It is rare to find references to snoballs in New Orleans cookbooks, and even more difficult to find recipes for the delicious syrups. This makes the seasonality of the snoball even more poignant. Short of freezing the season’s last snoball to combat a bit of mid-winter nostalgia, we won’t be duplicating the snoball in our kitchens unless a home version of the shaving machine becomes available.
Here are our picks for New Orleans’s best snoballs
4801 Tchoupitoulas St.
901 N. Carrollton Ave.
Piety Street Sno-Balls
612 Piety St.
6869 Jefferson Hwy.
1823 Metairie Ave.
SnoWizard Snoball Shoppe
4001 Magazine St.
Williams Plum Street Snoballs
1300 Burdette St.