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Where Y'Eat: The Summer Snoball Series, Part 1

Ian McNulty
Snoballs are a summer essential in New Orleans.

What is a New Orleans snoball? Why, it’s just ice and syrup flavoring, essentially water and sugar. But it’s a combination of water and sugar that you can’t get anywhere else in the world in just the same way.

Uniquely local, often misunderstood by outsiders and newcomers, embedded in the neighborhoods and found everywhere, the cheap, garishly-colored, rambunctiously sugary snoball is more than an icy treat. It’s a way of life in New Orleans, part of this city’s hands-on culture and an obsession some New Orleanians never outgrow. 

As the south Louisiana summer heats up, and as snoball season shoots into high gear, this segment is the first in a short series from Where Y’Eat intended to get to the bottom of why this should be so, of why the humble snoball has such a lock on the frozen, syrup-stained palates of New Orleans people from every walk of life.

Let’s start with what makes a snoball, and here it’s instructive to consider what a snoball is not. As any aficionado will point out, a snoball is most emphatically not a snow cone, a slushy, an Icee or any such thing. While those more common derivations of flavored ice are hard and crunchy, a snoball should have the soft, fleecy texture of freshly fallen snow. Flavors might superficially coat the surface of a snow cone’s ice and drain to the bottom, but they should penetrate into the very essence of a properly made snoball. And while snow cone flavors are often predictable, snoball flavors are richly variegated, from almond to wedding cake to the iconic creamy vanilla flavor known as nectar. 

But for those who grew up eating them the difference goes far deeper than ice texture or flavors. Snoballs are totems of a New Orleans youth, and to taste them — even, sometimes, just to recall them — is to tap a wellspring of sensory memory.

As the French writer Marcel Proust had his madeleine and all the memories called forth by that pastry, the snoball and the snoball stand and can summon all the saccharine sensations of youth for some sensitive New Orleanians. Get them talking about snoballs and soon a roster of favorite flavors gives way to dewy recollections of walking to the neighborhood snoball stand with their childhood pals, of ordering by color rather than flavor.

It’s the sugary aroma of the flavors perfuming the air around the stands. It’s the chugging and whupping of the snoball machines. It’s the sound of the screen door slapping shut at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. It’s the log seating arrayed around Sal’s Sno-Balls on Metairie Road and it’s the Chinese food take-out containers into which Plum Street Snowballs dispenses its “pail sized” treats. It’s the excitement that mounts along the hairpin turns of Jefferson Highway in Harahan as the family car approaches the neon façade of Ro-Bear’s Snowballs, and it’s the thrill for children of being able to buy snoballs with their own hoarded change.

For all of these and countless other, highly personalized reasons, the sticky fingers, stained shirtfronts and frozen palates of the snoball experience are powerfully evocative. Throw in a sugar rush and deep freeze sensation of the actual treat in their hands, and it’s easy to see why a trip to the snoball stand is a proposition so many New Orleans find utterly irresistible.

Our summertime snoball series continues next week with a look at their history.

Hansen’s Sno-Bliz
4801 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, 504-891-9788

Plum Street Snowballs
1300 Burdette St., New Orleans, 504-866-7996

Ro-Bear’s Snowballs
6869 Jefferson Hwy., Harahan, 504-737-5013

Sal’s Sno-Balls
1823 Metairie Rd., Metairie, 504-666-1823

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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