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Eats and Drinks

Cold Comfort

On the Cultural Significance of the Snowball in Baltimore

Michelle Gienow
Sugar Shack: Renie's Sno-ball Stand in Brooklyn

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 9/18/1996

Growing up in Baltimore, I just assumed that the stars of the local cultural firmament—steamed crabs, duckpin bowling, Natty Boh—were universally beloved. When Farrah Fawcett or Erik Estrada went out for a good time in Hollywood, I was sure, they probably rolled a few frames before settling in to enjoy an evening of hard-shells and frosties. (I was also sure that they, being stars, drank their beer from glasses rather than draining the can and then using it as an ashtray, a local custom I could live without even as a child.)

As I grew older and developed a slightly less Baltimore-centric worldview, I gradually came to understand that my significant childhood icons were not nearly so omnipresent as I had assumed. Families in other parts of the country, I found out, went to restaurants other than Gino’s for their fast-food burgers. My out-of-state cousins had never heard of Professor Kool, and when they reached high school, they completely missed the rock-and-roll glory that was Crack the Sky.

I could handle it. I was hip to regionalism, though I didn’t know there was a word for it. Over the years I developed a certain pride in my city’s cultural idiosyncrasies, even the shaky ones such as Wild Bill Hagy and Chessie. But my education about the limitations of Baltimore’s effect on the outside world was far from complete: It was only very recently I learned that snowballs fall into the same category as soft crabs and Berger’s cookies—namely, foods no one else on the planet really eats.

This bit of knowledge truly rocked my world. I mean, snowballs! Of all the comestibles birthed in Baltimore, this was the one that just had to have worldwide appeal. Snowballs are sweet, brightly colored, and inexpensive—even low-fat, for cryin’ out loud. Who could possibly not crave such a shaved-ice confection on a hot summer day?

Most of the U. S. of A., as a matter of fact. Aside from the Midwest, where “snow cones” (cousins to the snowball, but made of coarser ice, crushed instead of shaved) are sold on carnival midways, nobody really does snowballs outside of Maryland. In New Orleans, they try to lay claim to the snowball-capital title, but their version consists of fruit flavoring over ice that’s been shaved so fine it’s nearly liquid. Sorry, but any frozen concoction that can be sipped through a straw is not a true snowball. And don’t even talk to me about Italian ices or slush cups: Although widely available, they have about as much to do with snowballs as bacon bits do with actual bacon—similar intent, vastly different composition.

Curious about the history of the snowball and its ties to the city, I started asking everyone I knew about their snowball experiences. Those from outside of Maryland generally professed ignorance (one New Englander told me, “I’ve heard of those—they’re pretty much like Slurpees, right?” Eeesh! Back to the loch with you, Nessie!), while locals could be counted on to discuss with enthusiasm their favorite flavors, the role of marshmallow in the snowball experience, and whether we should go and get one right away.

Grace Phillips, a Baltimore native who turns 80 this year, recalls buying snowballs as a child in East Baltimore during the 1920s: “We went to a place at Washington Street and Clifton Park, where the man sold snowballs for two and five cents out of a little store. The nickel cup was made with syrup he made himself, with real pieces of fruit, that he ladled out of big bowls—that came with marshmallow. The two-cents one was just the regular flavor out of bottles, and that was the one we had to get because we were kids without any money—if you had a nickel you were lucky. We’d come out of swimming at the park, and you’d have to stand in line for half an hour or so to get your snowball, and they had three or four men working behind the counter.”

Perhaps the fact that snowballs are such an inexpensive treat explains how they became so entrenched in Baltimore’s culinary vocabulary—today, a dollar will still buy a large snowball, complete with marshmallow, at many local stands. During the Great Depression, snowballs sold for a penny and were known as “the hard-times sundae.” In 1932, after a rash of complaints about the proliferation of stands operating in residential neighborhoods, city mayor Harold W. Jackson defended Baltimore’s snowball entrepreneurs, saying, “Some of us may be down to eating snowballs soon, and I don’t want to put any limitations on the trade.”

Bruce Gapsis, co-owner of Koldkiss (a snowball supply house, possibly the only one of its kind), attributes at least part of the enduring popularity of snowballs to their low cost. “Snowballs are an inexpensive treat you can sell cheap and still make money on. And Baltimore is a blue-collar town,” where people don’t have much money to spend on their pleasures, he explains. “Snowballs are really intrinsic to Baltimore, almost like crabs but not as well-publicized.” When asked if he knows exactly how long Baltimoreans have been eating snowballs, Gapsis—who as a kid ran snowball stands with his brother/business partner Brian—answers, “Hard to say—there are patents for ice-shaving machines dating to the last century, but those didn’t really catch on until SnoMaster started making their machine, around the 1930s. People just used hand shavers instead. I’d say snowballs have definitely been around a long time, though.”

Local historian Dan Gibbs has traced the history of Baltimore’s favorite icy treat a bit more. “I knew they were definitely around by the turn of the century, because there’s evidence that vaudeville houses and theaters sold them,” he says. According to Gibbs, before air conditioning came to theaters, patrons could cool off with a snowball—but only in the lobby. “You weren’t allowed to take them into the theater itself, so you had to miss part of the show to eat your snowball,” he says.

Gibbs traces the birth of the snowball to the end of the 19th century, when commercially frozen ice became widely available. “Ice wagons would shave a little ice off the block for a customer, and eventually someone got the idea to flavor it. And the original flavor was egg custard, because it was so simple to make, just vanilla, sugar, and eggs.”

Gibbs even has a handle on the source of marshmallow as snowball topping. “That’s easy,” he says. “Marshmallow was an old form of candy, widely available. People at the time used it as an ice cream topping, and it just crossed over.”

Koldkiss sells “over 100 flavors” to go over the shaved ice, according to Gapsis (the company also sells the ice-shaving machines). “We’ve had more—you can come up with an infinite number of flavors, but there’s only about a hundred that sell consistently,” he says. The best sellers? Egg custard, cherry, and chocolate, Gapsis reports—a claim seconded by a poll of various snowball vendors around town.

“And definitely marshmallow topping,” he adds. “Marshmallow is a really big thing. We sell four or five [tractor-]trailer loads per summer. Some places in town, you can’t even sell a snowball without marshmallow on it.”

And Gapsis’ favorite flavor? “Hard to say,” he says, laughing. “It changes according to weather and mood. For example, on a cool day, if I want something interestingly sweet, I’ll have chocolate. On real hot and sunny days, I like spearmint. And if I want to play with something fruity, it’s raspberry.” With marshmallow? “Of course!”

Read more

Other Awards for Cold Comfort:

Cooking Up The Korean Equivalent of Chicken Soup, 12/10/2008

, 10/9/2002

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