In honor of Mardi Gras, the Southern Foodways Alliance celebrates the unique food of New Orleans. Today's story comes courtesy of Sara Roahen, author of "Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table." It should also be noted that many sno-ball stands are closed at this time of year, but that's not stopping anyone from dreaming about them.
Editor's note: The James Beard Foundation has just announced that Hansen's Sno Bliz will receive a 2014 America's Classics award, along with Nick's Italian Cafe (McMinville, Oregon), Olneyville New York System (Providence, Rhode Island), Perini Ranch Steakhouse (Buffalo Gap, Texas) and Sokolowski's University Inn (Cleveland, Ohio). The award honors regional establishments, often family-owned, that are treasured for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.
First things first: a New Orleans sno-ball is not a snow cone - a pre-frozen, rock-hard concoction like those sold from ice cream trucks and concession stands elsewhere. As each of our New Orleans Sno-Balls oral history subjects attest, New Orleans sno is a product of locally made, carefully stored, and expertly shaved-to-order ice.
The sugary syrups that color and flavor a New Orleans sno-ball are equally important to the final product, and each sno-ball maker protects his own syrup recipes. In fact, a majority of the recipes at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz in Uptown, Williams Plum Street Snowballs near Riverbend, and Sal’s Sno-Balls in Old Metairie have survived several generations of ownership.
As you might expect to find in a subtropical city, New Orleans’ flavored ice tradition dates back to a time when vendors shaved the ice by hand and carried just a small selection of flavorings. “Tee Eva” Perry remembers choosing between just strawberry, spearmint and pineapple syrups to flavor the coarse scraped ice at her neighborhood stand.
Then, in the 1930s, two sno-ball pioneers - George Ortolano and Ernest Hansen - independently built the city’s first electric ice-shaving machines. While a version of the Ortolano machine is still produced and sold by George’s descendents at the company SnoWizard, Ernest Hansen built his machines primarily for personal use. His legacy is in the family sno-ball stand, still run today by his granddaughter, Ashley Hansen.
Ortolano, Hansen, Eisenmann, Dennery—tied to New Orleans’ first sno-ball machines and extracts, these names are spoken again and again in our interviews. They are the people who helped turn New Orleans into what Bubby Wendling at Southern Snow Manufacturing calls the world’s sno-ball Mecca.
In spite of the sno-ball’s nostalgic appeal, flavor innovation is rampant. You’ll hear Claude and Donna Black talking about concocting Plum Street’s new king cake flavor. Steven Bel’s customers at Sal’s are stuffing orange dreamsicle sno-balls (a recent addition) with soft-serve ice cream. Bubby Wendling makes a novelty buttered popcorn extract. And Dylan Williams goes entirely new-school by flavoring his sno with minimally sweetened fresh-fruit juices.
These interviews, which you can find on the Southern Foodways Alliance website, only scratch the surface of New Orleans’ sno-ball culture, which is as varied and deep as the city’s neighborhoods. But one sentiment, one word, arose during nearly every one, at least where the sno-balls themselves were concerned: “Fun.”
More Mardi Gras meal advice:
What NOT to Do During Mardi Gras - Lu Brow advises not to bargain for beads and shares the importance of a Popeye's run with strangers
Five Cocktails I Enjoy Creating and CONSUMING During Mardi Gras - but Lu certainly knows how to cut loose, too
What we ate in New Orleans - and you should, too.
Cooking with Carville - the Ragin' Cajun talks about the food that fuels him
Of Mardi Gras Krewes and King Cakes - we look at the sweet history of King Cake