For Metairie native Lori Mascaro, summer evenings growing up during the early 1970s meant walking to a nearby sno-ball stand, often barefoot and usually with a gaggle of siblings and young neighbors. Some always ordered the same flavor, she recalls, while others, night by night, progressed alphabetically through the many colorful varieties. Forty years later, Mascaro's enthusiasm for sno-balls not only remains, it has been empowered by the eager sno-ball enabler she found in her husband Matt. Sometimes they have sno-balls for dinner.
Plenty of New Orleanians share this passion and would likely tip their sno-ball cups to Mascaro. Uniquely local — stands are embedded in neighborhoods and found everywhere — and often misunderstood by outsiders, the cheap, garishly-colored, ubersugary sno-ball is more than an icy treat. It's a way of life in New Orleans, part of this city's hands-on culture and an obsession some New Orleanians never outgrow.
"In New Orleans, people have a sno-ball like other people have a coffee," says Ashley Hansen, who runs Hansen's Sno-Bliz, the legendary Uptown sno-ball business her late grandparents Mary and Ernest Hansen started in 1939. "You see fathers and daughters coming in together, people come from the office, it's an outing where you get a sno-ball and you catch up. Sometimes you look around and there isn't a single kid in line here."
But if you've been visiting the same sno-ball stand for years, you might be missing out: Like every other New Orleans food, sno-balls are evolving as people experiment and put their own spins on the frozen treat. A sour pickle sno-ball, anyone?
As Marcel Proust had his madeleine and all the memories called forth by that pastry, local corporate communications consultant Jim Lestelle has the sno-ball, especially those from a stand located just two blocks from his childhood home in Old Metairie during the 1950s. He's forgotten the name of that stand but none of the excitement of visiting.
"The ordering windows always seemed so high off the ground, and the man behind the counter so larger than life," he says. "I would plunk my dime on the counter way above my head and call out to sometimes-unseen figures, 'I want a 10-cent red, please,' because 'red' was my favorite 'flavor.' Once, the owner allowed me inside the stand to operate what seemed like a giant crank on the ice-shaving machine. I was in heaven."
Such memories penetrate many New Orleanians' brains like the sweetest syrup plunging through the sno-ball cup. It's the sugary aroma of the flavors perfuming the air around sno-ball stands. It's the chugging and whupping of the sno-ball machines. It's the sound of the screen door slapping shut at Hansen's, the log seating arrayed around Sal's Sno-Balls on Metairie Road and the Chinese food take-out containers into which Williams Plum Street Snowballs dispenses its "pail sized" treasures. It's the excitement that mounts along the hairpin turns of Jefferson Highway in Harahan as the family car approaches the neon-lit facade of Ro-Bear's Snowballs, and it's the thrill for children of being able to buy sno-balls with their own hoarded change.
For these and countless other, highly personalized reasons, the sticky fingers, stained shirtfronts and frozen palates of the sno-ball experience are powerfully evocative for New Orleanians. Sno-balls are totems of a New Orleans youth, and to taste them — even, sometimes, just to recall them — is to tap a wellspring of sensory memory.
"I hate to say I ever get homesick, but I come home for three reasons: to see mom, to go to Domilise's Po-Boys and to get a sno-ball — not necessarily in that order," says Corrie Scully, a television producer in Hollywood who grew up in the 1980s eating sno-balls in Lakeview. "There is no point in going home for Christmas because you can't get a sno-ball then. It's just sugar and water, but you can't get sugar and water like that anywhere else."
Defining a sno-ball is easy: It's shaved ice with flavored syrup. Butit's instructive to consider what a sno-ball is not and a sno-ball most emphatically is not a snow cone, a slushie or an Icee. While most of those more common derivations of flavored ice are hard and crunchy or smooth and liquidy, a sno-ball should have the soft, fleecy texture of freshly fallen snow. This feathery effect is achieved by maintaining the proper ice temperature, keeping a very sharp blade in the ice-shaving machine and applying just the right slow, steady pressure while operating that machine. Flavors might superficially coat the surface of a snow cone's ice and drain to the bottom, but they should penetrate into the very essence of a properly made sno-ball. And while snow cone flavors are often predictable, sno-ball flavors are wildly variegated, from almond to wedding cake to the iconic creamy vanilla flavor known as nectar. For those who grew up eating them, however, the difference goes far deeper than ice texture or flavors.
In a 2010 story on shaved-ice refreshments of all sorts, New York Times food writer Julia Moskin opined that "(a) sno-ball is to a snow cone as Warren Beatty is to Shirley MacLaine: closely related, but prettier, smoother and infinitely cooler."
Flavored ice has been popular for ages, though the sno-ball local residents know it today was the special product of thrift and ingenuity during the Great Depression. Early in the last century, such treats were commonly made by vendors using palm-sized hand tools that resembled carpentry planers and had names like Gem Ice Shaver and Arctic Ice Shaver. It was a labor-intensive process to shave a cup full of ice, but a slew of inventors and entrepreneurs eventually began devising machines to speed up the work. Samuel Bert of Dallas generally gets credit for introducing the first motorized ice-shaving machine at the Texas State Fair in 1919. Records from the U.S. Patent Office show many others around the country were on the same path, filing patent applications for such machines from the 1920s on.
Ashley Hansen's grandfather Ernest Hansen hand-built his first sno-ball machine after hours at the riverfront machine shop where he worked. The first prototype, which he dubbed the Sno-Bliz, is on display at Hansen's Sno-Bliz. Ashley says it was made in 1934, and a second version, which Ernest Hansen built in 1939, is still used today by the staff at this landmark shop.
The Depression also spurred the late George Ortolano to build his own ice-shaving machine, which he hoped would boost business at the corner grocery he ran at Magazine and Delachaise streets. In 1936 Ortolano named his machine the SnoWizard, says his nephew, Ronnie Sciortino, who runs the sno-ball machine and flavor company SnoWizard Inc., which marks its 75th anniversary this year.
"Numerous people around the country invented ice-shaving machines, but none of them succeeded in the commercialization of manufacturing them like Uncle George did," Sciortino says. "He had the winning combination of a design that was easy to use and the marketing he put behind it to spread it across the city."
Ortolano's relatives also ran corner grocery stores around New Orleans, and they wanted to sell sno-balls too, Sciortino says. In this way the family essentially colonized New Orleans neighborhoods with satellite SnoWizard locations. The inventory these grocers had on their shelves formed the basis for some of today's sno-ball fundamentals, notably the vanilla extract that underlies so many flavors and the topping of condensed milk. Ortolano began promoting his machine at school fairs around the city and across the South, Sciortino says, enticing other entrepreneurs to enter the sno-ball business — and to buy their machines and flavors from him.
"With the machine, you could fill up a cup (with shaved ice) in 10 seconds, so now you could make a business out of selling sno-balls," Scortino says.
Ortolano's brother Frank later devised a small, shed-like modular building that could be easily deployed at different locations and taken apart for storage during the off-season. He marketed them to Sno Wizard customers as "sno-ball stands." By the 1960s, Sciortino says, "these sno-ball stands were all over the city, and it was like the snow cone never existed. It was sno-balls here, and it was just part of your language."
Today Sciortino runs the lone SnoWizard stand on Magazine Street, while from its River Road headquarters SnoWizard Inc. manufactures 400 to 500 new machines per year. In addition, Sciortino directs a huge and diverse flavor concentrate business. Trained by the late New Orleans chef and food developer Warren LeRuth, Sciortino crafts more than 150 flavor concentrates used by sno-ball stand clients across the country. He also produces a line of vanillas and other flavorings for bakeries and ice cream parlors.
The ever-evolving roster of sno-ball flavors means there is always something new to try, and new stands continually pop up to feed this New Orleans passion. Local customers know the product intuitively and the cost of entry is relatively low (SnoWizard "starter packages," which include everything from the machine and flavors to cups and counter sponges, range in price from $2,753 to $9,878). The upshot is that New Orleanians from all walks of life try their hand at the sno-ball business.
This spring, Charles Leach, the local party DJ known as Captain Charles, opened Captain C's Snoballs and Nachos along a stretch of Washington Avenue already thick with sno-ball competition. A few blocks down the street is Red Rooster Snowballs near Harmony Oaks, the new residential development that replaced the C.J. Peete housing project, and within a snowball's throw from there is Hanno Snowball Stand, just off LaSalle Street.
Gretna-based private investigator Mark Avery also opened a sno-ball business last summer, inspired by the lines of customers he saw at other stands on the West Bank.
"My kids were getting to the age where they were old enough to work, so I thought, 'Here's something where they can learn about business and serving the public and being responsible,'" Avery says.
He set up Sweet Shack Snowballs on Stumpf Boulevard next to his Deep South Investigations office and added a drive-through window. As the season has warmed up, customers have lined up.
"It's a recession-proof business," Avery says. "People can always afford $1.50 or $2 for a sno-ball."
Even WDSU-TV news anchor Camille Whitworth has gotten in on the action, starting a sno-ball catering service called Sno-Ball Baby last year. From tents and booths, she makes sno-balls on-site at events ranging from benefits to ballgames to political rallies. The sight of a well-known local TV personality serving sno-balls takes some customers by surprise, but Whitworth explains Sno-Ball Baby as a flexible side business that also indulges her personal obsession with the treat.
"It's fun," she says. "I love sno-balls, and I can't imagine a better way to spend my free time than making people smile. My favorite thing in life is to see an adult with a blue tongue or a red tongue; they just go for it. That's a badge of honor in New Orleans."
Many stands offer a short list of sugar-free flavors as alternatives to the saccharine wallop promised by a traditional sno-ball. But in 2009, Dylan Williams introduced a whole new approach with Beaucoup Juice, a hybrid sno-ball stand and juice bar. Williams uses a traditional SnoWizard machine to shave his ice, but over it he pours his own custom blends of fresh fruit juices, including watermelon, mango and blueberry. Some are blended with agave nectar or sugar, but the end result is far less sweet than the typical sno-ball. Still, he's learned to tweak his initial business model to accommodate local tastes.
"We do have condensed milk on the counter so people can add whatever they need," he says.
Despite these innovations, there appears to be little risk of traditional sno-balls falling out of favor in New Orleans. The allure of fine snow soaked in sugary flavors is so entwined with the city's identity that some people can't wait to indoctrinate the next generation.
Such was the case with Angie Bonura, who was babysitting her infant granddaughter Sophia one day last year when she brought the 6-month-old to Lou Lou's Snoballs in Metairie.
"She was teething, so they say put ice on that, you know, so I figured it was time for her first sno-ball," says Bonura. "She got nectar strawberry."
"She's 18 months (old) now and she has sno-balls all the time," says Sophia's mother, Nicole Morris. "Now we say that if Sophia develops a real sweet tooth later, we'll blame it on her nonna giving her that sno-ball."