Once peddled by street vendors who hand shaved large blocks of ice, snoballs remain a favorite frozen summertime treat.
Snoballs are a sweet summer treat similar to snow cones but made with finer, fluffier ice reminiscent of snow, rather than coarse crunchy ice. The ice is saturated, often in layers, by a variety of sweetened syrups flavored with fruits like cherry, strawberry, coconut, and pineapple and other local favorites like nectar cream and chocolate. Snoballs are sometimes topped with condensed milk or whipped cream. These treats are particularly popular in New Orleans, and today, more unusual flavors, such as ginger-cayenne and watermelon-jalapeno, can be found. Cream flavors such as crème de menthe and cereal creme are also popular. These seasonal culinary creations often help beat the heat of Louisiana summers and are not typically available for purchase during the colder months.
Snoballs were originally part of New Orleans’s vibrant street food culture when introduced sometime around the early twentieth century, but within a few years their sale had moved into corner stores, where their popularity grew. A 1906 edition of the Daily Picayune documents an early mention of these frozen treats, describing the call of the “vagrant peddler of fruits and snowballs.” The 1938 Works Progress Administration Guide to New Orleans describes icy treats served from a “snowball wagon” fitted with a “block of ice, and on each side gaudy syrup bottles…” serving a “…lump of shaved ice drenched in one of the colored syrups and served on a paper plate.”
Snoballs were originally made with a hand shredder, but the process was messy and unsanitary as vendors traveled around town with a cart and doubtful means of washing their hands. In the 1930s two New Orleanians invented and patented machines that would make snoball production fast and easy.
In the early 1930s Ernest Hansen built the first-known motorized ice-shaving machine to make snoballs for his family to enjoy, but it would not take long before Ernest’s wife, Mary Hansen, shared their creation with the world under the name Sno-Bliz, a snoball stand still in business today. In 1936 George Ortolano, the son of Sicilian immigrants and a neighborhood grocery store owner in his own right, made some extra money during the Depression by offering the inexpensive frozen treat for sale at his store. Ortolano spent time developing and building a machine, the SnoWizard Snoball Machine, that produces fluffy ice like that created by hand shaving but with less effort. His wife, Josie, helped create the syrup recipes. She had a knack for and a love of cream flavors, so much that “Mrs. O’” became known as the “Queen of Cream.” The Ortolanos no longer have a grocery store, but their machines are available for sale to the public.