The sno-ball is truly a New Orleans creation. The main reason for this is a machine called a "Hansen's Sno-Bliz." This is the machine that turns blocks of ice into sno-balls. Most sno-cones are made of crushed ice; a Sno-Bliz machine shaves a block of ice, giving it an extremely fine texture. The classic sno-ball machine (now manufactured by four or five companies in the area) works like a deli meat slicer. I've never seen anything like a sno-ball in any part of the country, although Lani Teshima-Miller's description of "shaved ice" in Hawaii is the closest thing I've heard. A sno-ball isn't an Italian ice, nor is it a crushed ice abomination.
Once the ice is shaved, it's collected into a cup, paper cone, bowl, plate, or even a container akin to the things that you get at a Chinese take-out place. Then syrup is poured over the ice, making one of nature's most perfect foods. Some people continue the process, adding cherries, ice cream, ice milk, condensed milk, or other toppings.
There's a bit of a ritual when it comes to buying a sno-ball. Most sno-ball stands are small affairs where you walk up to a window to place your order. The first thing you have to do is tell the kid working on the other side what size sno-ball you want. Currently this normally ranges from a small cup for around $.45 - $.50 to larger affairs which can go up to $2.00 each. If you're ordering more than one sno-ball, you tell her all of your sizes first. After she gets done with the ice machine, it's time to tell her what you want on them. Most sno-ball stands have anywhere from 30-70 flavors available from which to choose. The most popular are strawberry, cherry, grape, chocolate, ice cream (vanilla), and bubble gum (it's blue, tastes like bubble gum). Additional flavors can be simple, like lime or spearmint, to exotic, like orchid cream vanilla, papaya, etc. If you like something on top of your ice and syrup, they'll add that, then you pay and you're off.
Toppings on sno-balls started out fairly simple, and have grown over the years. First it was half-and-half sno-balls. Then things like condensed milk on a chocolate snoball, or chocolate syrup on an ice cream-flavored one. Then soft ice cream machines became affordable, so sno-ball stands started offering soft ice cream as a topping for sno-balls and in cones. I've seen some stands offering dry toppings, like chocolate or rainbow sprinkles, but I don't think they hold up well on ice.
It's all but impossible to come up with a top five or top ten list for sno-ball stands, because they're neighborhood creations. There are two exceptions to this: Hansen's Sno-Bliz Sweet Shop, in the 4800 block of Tchoupitoulas, and Plum Street Sno-balls in uptown New Orleans. These two are legendary, and transcend neighborhoods. Since I grew up a Metairie boy, the stands that I remember as being the best are one at Bonnabel and Metairie Road, and one at Veterans and Homestead. When I more-or-less moved to Gentilly for high school and college, the one on Fillmore and Elysian Fields became my regular stand. Nowadays we go regularly to the stand at Clearview and W. Esplanade.
Sno-balls are a summer creature; I can't think of a single sno-ball stand that is open during the school year. [Editor's note -- There are a few scattered here and there. CT] The main reason for this is that school kids are the main source of labor for a stand. Most of them have permanent sites that are closed for the bulk of the year. When the second week or so of May rolls around, however, and the high schools close, the stands re-open until around Labor Day.
My favorite's lime. Helen (my wife) likes strawberry with vanilla soft ice cream on top. Justin (my son) goes for chocolate.
Edward J. Branley
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)