reporting from new orleans
I drive alongside the grassy slope of the Mississippi River levee and turn east at Magazine Street, traveling past Audubon Zoo toward downtown. It's a narrow, bumpy street shaded by giant oaks, their roots upending great chunks of sidewalk. But nobody seems to mind. This is New Orleans.
I'm on a quest to find the best snowball in a city filled with stands. Don't mistake a snowball for a snow cone. The former is soft like powder snow, the latter crunchy like hard pack. Fluffy snowballs are served with a straw and a spoon and brim with vividly flavored syrups with names such as wedding cake, hurricane and nectar. Each stand has dozens to choose from. Another difference: With a snow cone, you can suck the flavor right out of the mouthful of ice. Not so with a snowball. The flavor and snow become one indivisible creation.
The first thing you do when handed your snowball is scoop out a spoonful or bite off the peaked top. Hang out at any stand and watch the next 20 people who receive their cup or carton, and 19 of them will, before getting two steps away, have the first bite in their mouth
4001 Magazine St., (504) 899-8758
A Tuesday in June, 2 p.m.
Temperature: 96 degrees
As I head for this iconic snowball stand, operated by the local makers of the SnoWizard ice-shaving machine, I worry about parking. You don't use the uber-hip Magazine Street as a thoroughfare to get anywhere fast. It's its own destination. And because the street didn't flood during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it never lost the chic momentum that's been years in the making. You'll find yoga studios, spas, ethnic restaurants, coffeehouses, pubs, European furniture shops and wallet-draining boutiques along with such staples as an auto mechanic, Laundromat, a Baptist church, stately houses, rundown Creole cottages and a big, gleaming Whole Foods Market.
So it is with joy that I discover that the Sno- Wizard stand on the corner of Constantinople has its own parking lot out front. The blue-gray brick building has a narrow white trellis providing a shady place to sit. Out near the street, a sign in the shape of a snow-topped cup says: "60 Fabulous Flavors" and "The Original New Orleans SnoBall Since 1937."
(There is a longtime controversy about who invented the first snowball machine, and there is a lawsuit pending about the copyrighted names of various snowball flavors. And few agree on the spelling -- "snowball," "snoball," "sno-ball" or "snow-ball"? Like sausage-making and politics, the process of snowball creation might best remain a mystery.)
The flavor choices are daunting: almond, amaretto, banana, Cajun red hot, cotton candy, lemon-lime, dreamsicle cream, pralines and cream, mango and dozens more. New flavors include mudslide, cherimoya, mojito and cake batter cream. I choose a medium Granny Smith apple and ice cream. With some added condensed milk (50 cents), this might taste like frosty pie a la mode. Cost: $2.75. I'm served my concoction in a tub that resembles a Chinese-food container. It's a messy brew and seems too slushy and heavy at first. But the blend satisfies. When I'm finished, I look into my empty container and wonder: Why didn't I order a large?
1823 Metairie Ave., (504) 666-1823 (Metairie)
A Tuesday in June, 8 p.m.
Temperature: 92 degrees
I'm partial to afternoon snowballs, but a lively culture of after-dinner snowballers is evident at Sal's Sno-Balls, which is open till 11 every night in Old Metairie, a suburb northwest of New Orleans. Real estate ads in Old Metairie, which had minimal Katrina flooding, may include this enticement: "Walk to Sal's Sno-Balls."
Sal's, which has been around 49 years, has a roomy gravel parking lot. On a patio out front, patrons spoon from their cups and sit on fake but comfortable logs. This isn't the kind of snowball stand where you grab the goods and run. You want to linger, socialize and share tastes.
A board lists 52 flavors, three sugar-free: strawberry, grape and wedding cake. The child-size strawberry I order with added condensed milk (called "can cream") is a vibrant pick-me-up in the evening's heated air and costs less than $2. The snow is crunchier than at SnoWizard. I'm told this sometimes happens when the ice-shaving blade is not sharp. The texture also depends on the temperature of the ice and the pressure with which it's fed through the machine.
On the other hand, readers' comments in the local newspaper state that Sal's has the softest, fluffiest, most-powder-snow-like ice around. And the place is packed. An article on the website of SnoWizard, where Sal's gets its syrup, says the stand can use 1,000 pounds of ice per night.
Plum Street Snowballs,
1300 Burdette St., (504) 866-7996 (Riverbend/Carrollton)
A Wednesday in June, 3 p.m.
Temperature: 96 degrees
I first encountered Plum Street Snowballs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April, where I had looked forward to a frosty delight during this annual music orgy. I bought a snowball from a stand there, eager to share with my companion the magic of snowballs. But I bit into the crunchy ice of a snow cone in a cup. Later, as we waited for Etta James to appear onstage, I set off in search of a real snowball, and I found it, with sugar-free lemonade syrup, at the Plum Street Snowballs stand. That's what I was talking about.
The main stand, established in 1945, sits in the middle of a relaxed, unpretentious residential neighborhood at Plum and Burdette streets, three blocks off the Carrollton Avenue streetcar line. Outside, there is a funky two-sided wooden bench under an umbrella and a stack of plastic chairs.
As usual, the choices are immense. Even though sugar is not my friend, today I must try the nectar, one of the most popular flavors. It's served up in a Chinese-food container lined with a plastic bag so it doesn't leak. The machine must have been perfectly tuned and the blade sharpened because the snow is exceedingly fluffy. The nectar is like creamy vanilla with peach and nectarine overtones. I think: If this is what hummingbirds are after, I understand the flutter of the wings.
4801 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 891-9788 (Uptown/Garden District)
A Thursday in June, 2 p.m.
Temperature: 94 degrees
Hansen's is not so much a snowball stand as it is a family's heritage. It opened in 1939 by Ernest and Mary Hansen, who both died shortly after Katrina. Today, their granddaughter Ashley runs the stand. As I pull open the wooden screen doors, I'm reminded of the Original Pantry in Los Angeles. And by that I mean the resistance to change.
The day I visit, Ashley pours the syrup (homemade using Mary Hansen's secret recipe), while her mom takes money and a young man feeds ice blocks into the machine that was designed by Ernest. There are fewer flavors than at some other stands and include two sugar-free choices: wedding cake and coffee. The guy behind me suggests his favorite, wedding cake. Today, though, he's going for a new flavor: satsuma. "I'm breaking the mold," he says.
As I watch the creation of my snowball, I feel as though I'm in Ashley's kitchen. She layers the snow and syrup, one after another, snow then syrup, snow then syrup, in a leisurely manner. She isn't so much cycling through the customers as she is honoring her grandparents. What that means, though, is slow service. One friend told me she has timed it: If you're in line just inside the door, the wait from that point is 30 minutes.
My order is $5, more than at other stands. But the wedding cake does not disappoint. It tastes like cake and frosting in a cup and the snow is soft, light and irresistible. It could well be the finest human-made snow on the planet. It's perfect, really.
901 N. Carrollton St. (no phone), Mid-City
A Friday in June, 1:15 p.m.
Temperature: 94 degrees
I begin craving a snowball one steamy Friday and head to Pandora's, a few blocks south of City Park. There's a crowd, but the operation runs smoothly. This stand has sugar-free chocolate, and I order a small with condensed milk and hand over $2.60.
The man pouring my syrup says that although the stand uses flavors from SnoWizard, he makes his own sugar-free chocolate. It tastes just like a chocolate Easter bunny, but after a while it seems watery. And the snow is crunchy. I can suck the flavor out of a mouthful of ice, and I think: "This isn't right."
I get the sweetness I came for, though.
As I walk back to my car through the neighborhood of fancy turn-of-the-last-century homes, I pass two beautiful women in church clothes and hats. One remarks: "Oh, it sure is hot." And the other reaches out to give my arm a squeeze, and says, "But we sure are grateful, aren't we?"
Yes, I say. I am.
For the sake of research . . .
Here are the results of the reporter's own taste test: Hansen's Sno-Bliz edged out Plum Street Snowballs, with SnoWizard third. Want to hold your own taste test? Hurry. Most stands close in late fall and don't reopen until spring.