Snoballs stands are such a part of the New Orleans scene it’s hard to imagine a time before they were commonplace, but really that time was not so long ago.
As the south Louisiana summer heats up, and as snoball season shoots into high gear, this segment continues a short series from Where Y’Eat exploring why the humble snoball has such a lock on the frozen, syrup-stained palates of New Orleans people from every walk of life. Today, it’s time to look at their history.
Flavored ice has been popular for ages, and different cultures all over the globe have evolved their own renditions. But the snoball, as New Orleanians know it today, was the special product of thrift and ingenuity during the Great Depression.
Early in the last century, such treats were commonly made by vendors using palm-sized hand tools that resembled carpentry planers. They bore names like Gem Ice Shaver and Arctic Ice Shaver, and using them was a bit like manual carpentry too. It was a labor-intensive process, but eventually a slew of inventors and entrepreneurs around the country began devising motorized machines to speed up the work.
Here in New Orleans, the late Ernest Hansen famously hand-built his own snoball machine in the early 1930s after-hours at the riverfront machine shop where he worked. He dubbed it the Sno-Bliz and this incredibly durable machine is still in use today at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the Tchoupitoulas Street shop where his granddaughter Ashley Hansen carries on the family legacy.
But a lesser-known story concerns how snoball machines spread around the city. For that, we turn to the SnoWizard, a local producer of snoball machines and snoball flavors that traces its roots back to 1936. As company president Ronnie Sciortino tells it, the hard times of the Depression spurred his late uncle, George Ortolano, to build his own ice-shaving machine, which he hoped would boost business at the corner grocery he ran Uptown. This was the first SnoWizard, and he soon set about building more of them and marketing them to others.
As it turns out, his first customers were his own family. Ortolano’s relatives also ran corner groceries around New Orleans and they wanted to sell snoballs too. So in this way the family essentially colonized New Orleans neighborhoods with satellite SnoWizard locations. What were their early flavors like? Well, consider the grocery store staples these grocers had at hand. Vanilla extract, chocolate syrup, condensed milk – it’s no coincidence these remains snoball fundamentals today.
The machines themselves helped distinguish a snoball from any other form of shaved ice, producing that ultra-fine texture that New Orleanians know as the mark of a good snoball. And also, by replacing the old hand shavers, they made the business prospects for snoballs more viable. Snoball stands began popping up all over the place. Before long every neighborhood had its own stand, and eventually the snoball became as much a part of New Orleans customs as the po-boy.
So the next time you get your hands on a snoball, remember you’re holding a piece of New Orleans history, albeit one that’s icy cold and soaked with sugar.
Tune in next week as we take a snoball safari of the new and offbeat flavors mixing it up on New Orleans streets.
4801 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, 504-891-9788
1823 Metairie Rd., Metairie, 504-666-1823