On a steamy weekday afternoon in June at the corner of Plum and Burdette Streets way Uptown, a cluster of teenage girls, an older couple, and a smattering of solo sweet-treat fans sit in plastic chairs beneath the bright yellow mural that decorates Williams Plum Street Snoballs’ front wall.
The now-daily summer rain has just passed, cooling off the lush green neighborhood and, more importantly, signaling my favorite time to indulge in one of New Orleans’ favorite hot-weather traditions. There’s no line — thanks, rain! — when I walk inside the tiny stand that hosted my college-era snowball pilgrimages a couple of decades ago. I’m greeted with a sunny “hello” from the guy tasked with operating the machine that makes the fine-ground ice, or “snow.” Plum Street is famous for its dizzying array of flavors, posted on the wall in the appealing if rag-tag fashion we’ve come to expect from mom-and-pop snowball stands in the city.
As George Ingmire explains in the “Summer Days and Nights” edition of WWOZ’s “New Orleans Calling,” the snowball was invented in New Orleans and owes its name snowflake-like shaved ice that’s now giving me a late-day sugar jolt.
Listen to the sounds of the snowball:
Once carved by hand from a block of ice, today’s snowball ice is generally made by a machine that churns out tiny chips of ice into each individual snowball container. (At Plum Street, those containers are usually Chinese food store take-out boxes.) The “snow” it produces is light and fluffy, a humorous contrast to the clunky ice shaving machines and their laborious grunts and bangs as they work to produce each snowball.
Snow in the Summertime
The first such machine was engineered by a machinist named Ernest Hansen in the early 1930s and initially just used for his family. In 1936, Ernest and his wife, Mary, began selling the treats to the public under a Chinaball tree outside their house on Saint Ann Street, as the story goes, with Mary’s homemade, cane sugar-based syrups for two cents a piece.
After a few on-and-off years during which Mary was busy raising her kids, the couple reopened the store as Hansen’s in 1939. It now stands at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Bordeaux Streets, with a large “77 years” painted on the side wall in honor of the number of years the family-run business has been churning out snowballs.
Folks are as allegiant to their favorite snowball stands as they are to their favorite po-boy shops.
When Hansen’s reopened, there was a competitor on the scene. In 1936, George Ortolano designed his own version of the automated ice chipper, which he dubbed the Sno-Wizard. According to Wikipedia, Ortolano’s first machine was made of wood. He tweaked that design to create a galvanized metal model that could be manufactured and sold to other companies. And while his company still sells machines — they’re reportedly the most widely used version of the machine on the Gulf Coast — Sno-Wizard also maintains a busy stand that boasts more than 150 flavors at 4001 Magazine Street.
A Flurry of Colors and Flavors
Back at Plum Street, I assure the server I’m not put off by the alarming blue color of their almond cream syrup, have them toss in some vanilla for kicks and head out for a stroll while alternately slurping cold, almond-flavored, melting “snow” from the bottom of my cup and scooping out mouthfuls of the more coarse top layer with a plastic spoon. Mission half accomplished.
While all the snowball stands in town have advantages and disadvantages (Plum Street’s open ’til 9 p.m. in the summer — definitely a plus), folks are as allegiant to their favorite stands as they are to their favorite po-boy shops. That’s why I’ve ordered a kiddie cup (a bargain at less than $1.50): I’m now determined to make it to Hansen’s for my favorite snowball in town: half cardamom, half almond cream. Yep. Two snowballs in one afternoon. Because research. OK, because gluttony, but whatever.
The heat’s returned by now, and 15 or 20 people are already in line when I begin the long wait for cardamom-scented goodness. A peek at today’s “fancy flavors” reveals a honey lavender option, plus vanilla bean, satsuma and ginger-cayenne, among others. A slew of classic flavors are offered on a sign above the fancy ones. The “Brown Pelican,” made from homemade cream of root beer, straddles the classic-fancy line (and wins the prize for best nickname, in my book.)
On another wall, deluxe options include the “Senior Atomic” (ice cream, fruit puree, and marshmallow up the usual flavored ice ante), and the similarly constructed “Baby Duper” and “Super Duper.” There’s also a topping from Paradigm Gardens made of caramel with local rosemary, though most customers ahead of me seem to be sticking to the old school topping options: crushed pineapple, strawberries, or cherries and condensed milk.
Finally, after inching past walls papered with love letters from city bigwigs and plain old customers, plus old photos and newspaper clippings, I request the $4.50 plastic go-cup size of cardamom and almond cream (the cream flavors at Hansen’s have whole milk in ‘em — a nice texture when you’re skipping the toppings) and watch as the guys behind the counter create my second indulgence of the day, the warm chug-chug-chug rumble of Ernest Hansen’s ice shaving machine reassuring me that I’m doing summer in New Orleans right.
Where to Get ‘Em
For your own personal snowball blitz, check out one — or all — of these local favorites:
- 1300 Burdette St.
- Open 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day but Sunday, when they open at 2 p.m.
- Fun perk: Dating back to 1945, these guys stay open late for you night-owl sno-ball seekers; they also have a Metairie location at 3000 Downs Blvd.
- 4801 Tchoupitoulas St.
- Open Tuesday – Sunday, 1 p.m. – 7 p.m. in season (March through October)
- Fun perks: The “Super Duper” is super crazy, while the “fancy flavors” probably helped earn Hansen’s its James Beard American Classic designation. They support farm-to-table foodie-ism by using Paradigm Gardens’ products and occasionally donating to the Grow Dat youth Farm.
- 4001 Magazine St.
- Open Sunday – Friday 12 p.m. – 8 p.m. and Saturday 12 p.m. – 7 p.m. in season (April 1 – Sept. 30)
- Fun perks: Sno-Wizard’s central Uptown location makes a visit easy mid-Magazine Street stroll; they also host a Haydel’s king cake popup during Carnival time.
- 4719 Freret St.
- Open seasonally Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (the juice bar and smoothie shop is open year-round)
- Fun perks: All the syrups are made of fresh fruit juice; Beaucoup Juice uses Sno-Wizard ice machines and makes frequent appearances at festivals around town.
- 901 N. Carrollton Ave.
- Open Monday – Sunday 12 p.m. – 7 p.m.
- Fun perks: Pandora’s serves food items including 100 percent Angus beef burgers and other food as well as snowy goodness; as one on-the-ball Yelper points out, their clear flavors are a good option if you’re wearing white — or generally messy!