Like so many other things about New Orleans, it’s easier to define a snoball by what it isn’t than what it is. Notice is served: a snoball is not a sno-cone. Nor is it an ice. It is not a Slush Puppie or a Raspado. It is uniquely of the Crescent City, although its influence has spread throughout the South and somewhat beyond, in part due to the Katrina diaspora, which had the unintended but pleasant effect of introducing America to the really weird things we eat and drink (and listen to) down here. So in case you were wondering…
Many countries across the world served chopped, cracked, crushed, or just plain big chunks of ice with sweet syrup on them. It’s an inexpensive way to cool off in the summertime, especially in tropical or subtropical locales where cooling off can be essential to one’s health and well-being. New Orleans being New Orleans, we somehow found a way to make that process unhealthy. But more on that later.
The snoball differs from the more widespread snocone in that it is built on a cup full of very finely shaved ice. Although New Orleanians (and others) have been eating flavored, finely shaved ice since the 19th century, it was an Uptown machinist named Ernest Hansen who kicked snoballs into the modern, mass-production age by inventing and patenting the first motorized ice-shaving machine in 1934. Modern devices shave the ice even thinner, so thin it actually looks like snow when the modern metal monster blows it into your cup. If the ice isn’t shaved this fine, it isn’t a snoball.
The other thing that makes a snoball uniquely New Orleanian is the flavor. As befits the city’s culinary heritage, the sweetened syrups that soak the ice (usually bottles bought from a regional distributor, but sometimes made in-house) are equally reminiscent of early-20th-century kiddie candy — the hard, pennycandy stuff — exotic alcoholic beverages, or rich pastries and desserts. In fact, a real New Orleans snoball stand is simply not complete without the following flavors:
Wedding Cake: Almond and coconut, sometimes with pineapple.
Silver Fox: Almond and vanilla.
Pink Lady: Sort of a pink lemonade with berry flavors.
Blue Bubblegum / Pink Bubblegum: Only the syrup manufacturer seems to know the taste difference between these two; to most snoball fans, they simply taste “blue” or “pink,” much like their cotton candy counterparts.
Nectar: Vanilla, peach, and nectarine.
Popeye: Spearmint and peppermint, like a doublemint gum. And colored spinach green, naturally.
Tiger’s Blood: Coconut and strawberry (sometimes with orange added).
In addition, a real NOLA stand will offer fruit flavors, especially tropical ones, which always work best — you can never go wrong with a pineapple, banana, coconut, or even watermelon flavored snoball. And it’s also a tradition to have flavors based on kids’ cartoon characters. At almost any stand, you’ll see Ninja Turtle and Batman flavors, sometimes a Smurf, or even a Pac-man. Usually these flavors merely replicate the color of whatever the character is, so a Batman is black and yellow (that is, black cherry and banana) and a Ninja Turtle is green and yellow (lime and banana). There are endless variations. And endless other flavors. If you can think of something sweet, or even cool, or even snacky, it’s been done: Strawberry Shortcake. Iced Tea. King Cake. Hurricane. Dreamsicle. White Russian. Tiramisu. Pina Colada. Dill Pickle. Buttered Popcorn.
But even if you find a stand with the right flavors and shaved ice machine, you won’t necessarily get a great snoball. Believe it or not, there’s actually an art to dumping syrup onto ice — with flavors this sweet and rich, too much syrup will make you sick on a hot summer’s day, while not enough and you start to see the color go out of your drink about halfway down. If you wanted to be left with a flavorless iceberg, you’d just have yourself a snocone, wouldn’t you?
Getting the mixture right actually involves layering the ice and the syrup bit by bit — layer of ice, layer of syrup, layer of ice — until the cup is full, then adding a giant cone of ice on top, packed down by an inverted steel funnel. The final step is to punch five flavor channels, like points on a imaginary star, all the way down into the snoball with a straw, then pour even more syrup in, to make sure every last bit of ice is soaked. The proper snoball should be completely saturated but have no residual syrup floating around the top or sides.
When that’s done, it’s time for the topping. Any real vendor will offer, for about .75, the option of having condensed milk poured on top, which sounds strange but is actually super delicious. (In Baltimore, the only other American city with a similar snoball heritage, they like to use marshmallow fluff.) You can also sometimes get chocolate syrup, or an extra flavor on top, or “sourness” added, or even a stuffed snoball, where ice cream is inserted into the middle of the ice for an extra treat. The high-end, Uptown NOLA shops will use real fruit and fruit juices in their creations, and real creams, but usually you’re dealing with syrup and ice.
There’s nothing like coming upon a snoball stand on a blisteringly hot day, leaning into the tiny window of the prefab shack, and feeling the blast of the AC window unit, not to mention the effect of all that ice, smacking you right in your sweaty, tired face, mixed with what seems like the culmination of every sweet, fruity, tart, creamy, candylike flavor there ever was. I once had the good fortune to visit the headquarters of SnoWizard, the machine-and-flavoring empire built up from Hansen’s original small Uptown shop, and entering the cool confines of the syrup warehouse was like walking into Willy Wonka’s snoball factory.
So! Let’s review. Very finely shaved ice. Absolutely soaked in some decadent flavor. Possibly topped with something even richer. Served with a spoon and a straw. This is a New Orleans snoball. And you can get a super large, “garbage can” sized one (32 oz.), with all the add-ons, for about $4. Because eating like a king for next to nothing is a large part of the culture, too.