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Balls Up

Let's hear it for Baltimore's favorite (but perhaps not homegrown) summer treat

Henry Hong

Sizzlin Summer 2009

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By Henry Hong | Posted 5/20/2009

When Smith Island cake was named Maryland’s official state dessert last year, a few of us considered protesting, but fearing reprisal from the seemingly powerful Smith Island Cake lobby, we declined. Our beef? With all due respect, how many people know what Smith Island cake even is? A more appropriate (though admittedly Baltimore-centric) choice would’ve been sno-balls. They’re far more readily available and everyone—OK, more people—know what they are. Most importantly, as has been argued in these pages before ("Cold Comfort," Best of Baltimore, Sept. 18, 1996), they seem to be a native delicacy.

But astute dissenters justifiably question whether sno-balls are a dessert per se. And more disturbingly, are they really a Baltimore thing? In the interest of keeping it real, I set about finding answers to those ponderous questions. Rampant bubble-bursting ensued.

First, some definitions: a "snow ball" is exactly that, a ball of snow, utilized primarily as a weapon. There's also a verb form, but it's far too ribald to discuss here. A sno-ball (no "w") is small particles of ice gently compacted to which flavoring is added as the final step, which is what distinguishes it from Slurpees, Italian ices, and so-called "water ices" (like Rita's), all of which have the flavor mixed in before serving.

Then, there's the question of shaved versus crushed ice, which is possibly related to the "other" term for sno-balls, snow cones. My first such icy treat was the Good Humor Snow Cone. Kids from the '80s will recall that it was crushed ice flavored in bands of blue raspberry, lemon, and cherry, in a leaky wax-paper cone. So the "cone" part made sense, but "snow" not so much--the exposed dome of already crunchy ice particles invariably hardened into a tooth-rattling, syrup-less barrier. Chiseling down to the money zone--within the cone, where the syrup mingled with melting ice--took actual work, delaying gratification. Plus, the flimsy paper always fell apart, resulting in precious syrup lost down one's arm, or worse, irretrievably to the pavement.

Still, its iciness seemed inherently colder than ice cream on hot days. And since being a kid in the 'burbs meant nothing was in walking distance, and icy treats had to come to you, the jingling truck wielded absolute power. Despite being deeply flawed, I loved snow cones, mainly because they were the only game in town.

Then, I discovered the red barn-looking things that were "The Original Hawaiian Sno-ball Ice" stands (the original "Original" is still open on Liberty Road), and the sno-ball in its most recognizable and arguably perfect form. The shaved ice made for effortless consumption and better syrup retention (and more in line with the "sno" part of the term), and the Styrofoam cup it was served in was more durable, better insulating, and more voluminous than a paper cone. Other advancements included utensils--a spoon straw (to handle the initial solid and final liquid phases), and toppings, namely marshmallow and chocolate syrup.

But "Original Hawaiian" implies sno-balls aren't homegrown. Furthermore, in Korea I'd encountered something called bing soo: shaved ice with sweet toppings. The most popular was sweet bean paste, the utter weirdness of which threw me off initially, but it's essentially the same dish. Indeed, shaved ice, often topped with fresh fruit or homemade syrups, is common across Asia and, perhaps due to its large Asian population, in Hawaii, where it's called "shave ice," no "d" (dropped consonants are apparently an American tradition). In fact, the concept goes back to the ancient Romans, who are said to have enjoyed snow imported from mountaintops and sweetened with honey. Significantly, it's much easier to shave ice manually than it is to crush into uniform chunklets, and this may explain why shaved ice appears more widespread than crushed.

So, the general idea of a sno-ball is definitely not original or confined to our area. To determine if there's something, anything about sno-balls we can truly call our own, I conducted a totally unscientific survey of nearly 100 people. My control group (home) was Dundalk-area high school kids, whose probability of regular sno-ball consumption and of being native to Baltimore were very high. The second group (visitors) varied greatly in age and had high out-of-town representation. The numbers bore out astonishingly stark delineations in icy treat perception.

First, both groups preferred shaved over crushed, an overwhelming 87 percent in the home group and a still significant 57 percent in the visitor group. More telling was terminology: an incredible 98 percent of the home group preferred the suffix -ball over -cone, as opposed to only 33 percent of visitors. Perhaps "ball" equals Baltimore? Not according to Ashley Hansen (whose grandfather Ernest patented the first ice-shaving machine), owner of Hansen's Sno-Bliz in New Orleans, where the dominant suffix is also ball, and the preference is shaved (get your mind out of the gutter) ice. If it's any consolation, Baltimore and New Orleans seem to be the only cities in the country in which "sno-balls" is a common term.

Moving on to toppings, as a no-topping purist, I was amazed that 87 percent of the home group indicated they roll with marshmallow, compared to a scant 11 percent of visitors, most of whom reacted to the notion with a combo-platter of shock, confusion, and revulsion. Again, Ms. Hansen trampled my dreams: The Big Easy likes marshmallow, too, and even has identical marshmallow layering customs (i.e., bottom, middle, top, or any combination thereof). What the fuck? For whatever reason, our two cities are inexorably entangled in the sno-ball universe.

But upon further inquiry, there emerged, finally, a distinguishing factor, at least. At Hansen's, they use paper and plastic cups, whereas in Baltimore we are all about the Styrofoam, clearly the superior material for icy treats. Cold comfort perhaps, but hey it's something.

Helpful rhyme:

Styrofoam and marshmallow, you're in Baltimore fellow.
If your cup is leaky, you're in the Big Easy.

But the final prick in my sno-balls-as-the state-dessert bubble was that a vast majority of both groups agreed that sno-balls aren't subject to time constraints, post-meal for instance, and are thus not desserts. You win this round, Smith Island.

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