During the summer in the South it's tough to get through the day. The sun, the brutal beast that she is, is really messing with your mojo. It's hot, like really hot, so hot that your brain stops working and there's no relief in sight. If you happen to be in New Orleans during the summer, you might spot a mass of locals perched on a bench and enjoying an icy treat that is a surefire way to beat the heat. Known in New Orleans as the snowball* this cup of shaved ice with syrup isn't a dessert, it's a survival skill.
*Admittedly, the proper spelling of snowball in this case is snoball, but I can't bring myself to spell it that way unless it's a proper noun.
On our recent visit to New Orleans, we took it upon ourselves to find the sweetest, fluffiest, tastiest snowballs in the city. I fancy myself somewhat of a snowball connoisseur. As a kid, I didn't get excited about the ice cream man, it was the snowball man that won my heart. Although, I did grow up on the Maryland variety, so when I arrived in New Orleans I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. In my experience a good snowball must have the fluffiest ice that resembles snow and topped with a brightly colored syrup, preferably made in-house. And, if there isn't a long, long line of locals waiting, it probably won't be any good.
The first snowball we tried wasn't in New Orleans proper, but on the northside of Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville. We just couldn't wait to get into the city. Papa Sam's Snowballs served up saccharine snowballs reminiscent of my youth. We perused the board of flavors (there had to be at least 40) and I opted for a simple strawberry. Sweet, cold and delicate on the tongue, Papa Sam's passed the test. There was no crunchy ice to be found.
Not all flavors are as simply named, for example, Austin sampled Tiger's Blood, a mix of flavors that left his mouth bright red. Austin also wondered if it was a recent Charlie Sheen inspired moniker, but I assured him that Tiger's Blood has been delighting children since well before Major League.
One evening later in the week, post-dinner, we thought it might be a good time to try a second treat. We arrived at Plum Street Snoball just in time, as we were one of the last ones through the door that evening. That didn't seem to bother the staff, who were definitely ready to go home, but still made our orders with a smile and with care. Obviously we weren't the only people in town with a last minute craving, because the bench outside was packed and we ate ours from the comfort of our rental car. It was a satisfactory snowball, but I don't know if it was a poor flavor choice (pink lemonade) or something intangible that left me looking for more.
While we were in New Orleans, the cover story in the weekly newspaper, The Gambit, was all things snowball. Coincidence? I think not. One discovery from this article, was the non-traditional snowball from Beaucoup Juice. This juice bar serves up natural juices atop recognizable snowy ice and will leave you refreshed and your tongue stain-free.
They save the bright colors for their decor, which is sunny and vibrant. With a few tables and a coffee shop vibe, it was the perfect spot to take a break for the afternoon.
The pineapple snowball that I ordered was a perfectly formed triangle and I spent a moment in awe of it's perfection before even taking a bite. Flavored with sweet, natural freshly juiced pineapple with flecks of pulp. It was a treat that didn't make you feel guilty after indulging.
Subtle flavors also filled the passionfruit snowball that Austin sampled. The juice was sweet, but natural, like drinking cold undiluted passionfruit juice. Beaucoup snowballs resembled a traditional snowball in form only, but we were both ok with this healthier stand-in.
Lastly, but certainly not least, on our last evening, we visited the renowned New Orleans institution, Hansen's Sno-Blitz. A long line greeted us out the door of 72 year old institution and we settled in for a wait.
We watched the local kids wait with eager eyes for their snowballs to be presented, laughed at the modern-version day of "Miss Mary Mac" game being performed and were humbled at one patron gifting a teenage girl with $.50 when she realized she didn't have quite enough cash to cover her treat. The walls of the store are papered with their news clippings and photos of beloved patrons and the founders. We stood in anticipation as they loaded blocks of ice to be shredded and stood in awe at the snow-like substance that came from their patented machine. There was also plenty of time to make up (and change) your mind on exactly what you were going to order. I think everyone walked out with one size larger than they had initially intended.
There were classic flavors, juices, and premium flavors to choose from, as well as an array of toppings. Most local New Orleanians choose to put condensed milk on top, but I spotted a childhood favorite for the first time since arriving in Louisiana, marshmallow. Fluffy marshmallow piled on top of a strawberry snowball was absolute summertime perfection. The fluff freezes a bit from the cold and offers a chewy contrast to the snow-like treat. I had rediscovered my childhood. As we stood on a street corner, oblivious to the heat and humidity that surrounded us we remarked that snow in New Orleans was the perfect kind of snow, indeed.
Snowballs not only allowed me to revisit a childhood favorite, but it peeled away another level inside the culture of New Orleans. As we stood in line or slurped down our treats on a street corner, we saw a slice of New Orleans that many may have missed. On your next trip to New Orleans, plan to go in the warmer months (as early as April) and head out of the French Quarter into a neighborhood to get a taste of New Orleans. I know where I'll be next April.