For their granddaughter, Ashley Hansen, there are no shortcuts to getting Hansen's Sno-Bliz open again for its first season after Katrina, and there is no easy way to keep alive something that is as much a community tradition as a family legacy.
The Hansens were in the sno-ball business since 1934, when Ernest constructed the Sno-Bliz sno-ball maker after-hours at the riverfront machine shop where he worked. For generations of New Orleanians, Mary and Ernest were as much a part of the summer sno-ball experience as sticky fingers and a frozen palate.
Mary died in September at age 95. Ernest, her husband of nearly 73 years, followed his bride in March, dying at age 94.
Ashley is opening the shop this year for the first time without Ernest and Mary, but it's not quite right to say they aren't there. Their personalities and work ethic defined the place, and the little shop is saturated with their memory like a benevolent haunting.
"I can't imagine not being here," says Ashley, who planned to reopen Memorial Day weekend. "It's everything. The way the flavors smell, the sounds of the machines, the sound the screen door makes when it shuts."
For many, many years, Ernest and Mary had division of labor down pat. He took care of the machine while she was in charge of the flavors, which she made herself and dispensed from old liquor bottles. Now that they're gone, all of the responsibilities fall to Ashley. But there's no one in the world better trained for the job.
Before the advent of Hansen's Sno-Bliz, vendors of flavored ice shaved blocks of ice with carpentry planers and packed them into cups by hand. Ernest set out to create a more sanitary method and eventually devised his Sno-Bliz machine. Ernest and Mary first sold their sno-balls from a porch on St. Ann Street in Faubourg St. John at the height of the Great Depression, and later at a Valmont Street shop Uptown. That's when sno-balls sold for two cents each. They moved to Tchoupitoulas Street in 1944.
Ashley began working at the shop during summers at an early age, helping her grandparents clean up and later getting the nod from Mary to begin serving customers.
"I remember that moment feeling honored but also scared, because I was so shy. But they taught me how to be with people just by watching how they treated everyone," she says.
Ashley left home for college and returned after graduation in 1996. Ernest and Mary, then in their mid-80s, were considering not opening the shop that season, but Ashley was determined to carry on the business.
"I was prepared to open it on my own, and I think my enthusiasm inspired them," she says. They agreed to open the shop with Ashley's help and soon "there were the three of us doing everything together," she says.
"Everything" included Ashley picking up her grandparents in the morning for breakfast together, shopping for supplies, preparing the syrups, serving customers all day and finally bringing them both back home at night.
"A lot of my friends were having kids," says Hansen, who is 32. "But for me, I had grandparents."
Ashley was essentially running Hansen's, but because the shop was such a part of her grandparents' identity they could never simply turn the business over to her. "Dad and I had to sneak around even to get me a key to the shop," Ashley says. "They wanted to be here at every turn."
Eventually, as age and illness advanced, Mary was no longer able to make the syrups herself, but her granddaughter says she was too stubborn to admit it. So the family played along, making the syrups on the sly and allowing Mary to believe she was still creating them as usual.
"Luckily, I had watched how she made them since I was a little girl," Ashley says. "Dad and I experimented until we got them just right."
Hansen's Sno-Bliz was open the Saturday before Katrina struck. Ernest would turn 94 that weekend and he wanted to be at the shop, regardless of the increasingly dire warnings about the hurricane in the Gulf. The family left well before the storm hit, but the stout cinderblock building suffered serious wind damage. Repairs found Ashley muscling heavy, vintage equipment around the shop in the days before she was scheduled to reopen, alone except for the countless pictures of her grandparents and their customers on the walls.
"It's always been about more than sno-balls, even for the customers," she says. "After you wait in line so long, it's got to be about more than sno-balls."
Still, there was art in the way the Hansen's made sno-balls, the same approach they passed down to their granddaughter. The Sno-Bliz machine shaves ice to an extraordinary fineness, which gives the sno-balls their incomparable, snow-like texture. But this fine ice makes it harder for the syrups to penetrate all the way through. That's why sno-balls at Hansen's are made in alternating stages of ice and syrup, a time-consuming process that helps explain why the lines usually moved slowly. An easy shortcut is to make the ice shavings coarser but, as the signs on the wall constantly remind, there are no shortcuts to quality at Hansen's.