Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Being a kid again: On Snow Cones, Icees, Slushies, and Sno Balls

This post is about Sno Balls, a great New Orleans culinary tradition. But first, a little history of what life is like in the absence of this treat.

I grew up with the snow cone - and what a horrible way to start life. Sold by ice cream trucks, you'd quickly suck out all the juice, and then were left with hard chunks of flavorless ice (or worse - ice that tasted amiss). The best part of the damn things was the rock hard gumball at the bottom of the paper cup.

Some stores served the Icee - this drink in the polar bear-adorned cup was an upgrade over the snow cone. While flavors were limited (cherry, coke, sometimes others), the softer consistency of the ice made for longer-lasting flavor. The problem was that you had to wait for the thing to melt, as they were only served with a straw which seemed to take forever. And you were eventually left with a flavorless ice hash at the bottom of your cup.

Slushees are definitely next up in the ice-syrup hierarchy, with the many flavors of Slush Puppy being a favorite sight for me as a kid. So many choices: at least 8, like a box of crayons! The mix of syrup with liquified ice was a big improvement over the Icee, allowing a drink you could slurp through a straw, though with a sickening sweetness that effectively prevents anyone over 13 from ordering one.

And that brings me to New Orleans, where "Sno-Ball" shops are ubiquitous. Northerners have seen sights like these before - shacks that serve shaved ice soaked in syrup - nothing new to see here, move along.

You have no idea what you are missing.

Thanks to the brilliant book "Gumbo Tales" by food writer Sara Roahen (which I'll review in a later post), I recently discovered that I live blocks away from the premier home of New Orleans Sno-Balls: Hansen's Sno-Bliz.

I can't help but provide a brief history of the shop, as I've learned it. Started by Ernest and Mary Hansen in 1939, it's still run like day one. Ernest had the inspiration for a hygienic, efficient ice-shaving machine (original pictured above) after watching street car vendors scrap ice by hand in carts on hot New Orleans days. Mary cooked the syrups - all her own recipes, kept in meticulously cleaned pouring bottles. The shop was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and around that time the Hansens passed on, leaving the shop in the hands of their granddaughter, Ashley, who Roahen describes an audience with as "like a teddy bear hug." I highly recommend the book, if for nothing more than this chapter, especially if you are a northerner whose found yourself in this city (the book is subtitled "Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table"). Ashley rebuilt the shop, and has taken the place of her grandparents, keeping the Sno-Bliz coming for more generations of kids (and big kids).

Now let me tell you what a Hansen's Sno-Bliz is not: It's not a snow cone, it's not a slushee, and it's not like anything you've ever had up north.

The genius of the set-up is the ice shaved straight from fresh blocks (bought from an icehouse) using Earnest's machine. After each scoop of ice, Ashley pours the syrup, 3 times for full-flavored effect. And the flavors! Cream of Chocolate, Bubble Gum, Coconut, Root Beer, Limeade, and many, many more, available in combos of your choosing for added effect. And then there's the toppings (more on that below). Cream of Nectar is the house specialty and most popular flavor, described by Ashley in Roahen's book like this: "When you grow up in New Orleans, that's the flavor that makes it all real. That's the flavor that you makes you remember your childhood. It's fluffy. It's pink." Roahen goes on to talk about nectar being the drink of the gods. I think it's better to see it as the drink of eager birds and bees, and there's a reason we are drawn to the brightly colored flavor. It's undefinable, amazing, but feels so life-sustaining - what it must be like to be the fluttering butterfly seeking out the most brilliant blossoms.

But the Sno-Bliz does not stop at syrup. Toppings galore await, like crushed pineapple (add it to coconut syrup for a take on pina colada), marshmallow fluff - another flavor to make you a kid again, condensed milk (found at most stands - try it, you'll love it), or you can get what Hansen's calls a "hot rod" - a scoop of ice cream in the middle of your Sno-Bliz.

So on a hot and humid, typical New Orleans summer Sunday, I strolled the few blocks to Hansen's, waited a while in the line (there's always a line), snapped a few photos, and ordered the ice & syrup concoction I've been waiting for my whole life: A Cream of Nectar Hot Rod. I've not felt more like a kid since the days I sprinted out the door at the sound of the ice cream truck.

Ignore the facial hair. I'm six again.

And as for Ashley, she told me she liked my shirt. And I felt like I had been hugged by a teddy bear.

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