Thursday, August 21, 2008

That frozen concoction that helps me hang on

Jimmy Buffett can keep his frozen margaritas—I prefer mine poured on the rocks. For hot-weather refreshment when I need to keep my wits about me, my frozen concoction of choice is the snowball.

Now let me be clear: A snowball is not an Italian ice, and it's certainly not a snow cone. A snow cone is granulated ice with a small amount of flavoured syrup; a snowball is finely shaved ice with a large amount of flavoured syrup. Snowballs are popular in Maryland (the shaved-ice machine was invented in Baltimore), where they are nearly as iconic as steamed crabs and Natty Boh, but damn near unheard-of everywhere else (which is why I have to shoot down the snow cone comparison straight away).

I favoured watermelon snowballs as a kid, but have since adopted my late mom's choice: spearmint and chocolate. Mint-chocolate snowballs may not be visually appealing—as they melt, they turn a nasty brownish-olive color that reminds some people of a baby's diapers—but they are delicious, and I indulged in a couple while back home last week.

Normally, my return to Nebraska would be marked by snowball withdrawal, but it turns out that Lincoln has not one but two snowball stands. I was expecting a Baltimore connection, but according to the young man behind the counter, Snow Rush (reviews here and here) is owned by a family from Louisiana. Susie ordered Georgia peach, and I ordered spearmint (alas, no chocolate on the menu), and when they were served I was alarmed to see the ice piled high above the rim of the cup—like a snow cone. Fortunately, one taste proved we had the real thing: genuine, oh-so-refreshing snowballs. And even better, the counterman agreed to share my request for chocolate syrup with the owner.

Summer is, for me, kind of a drag. If I could aestivate like a ground squirrel, sleeping away the hottest weeks underground, I would. But snowballs can make even a hot summer's day bearable. A Maryland treat, in Nebraska, by way of Louisiana? Laissez les bon temps roulez!

[Update: I added links to two reviews, above. The Journal Star review credits a shaved-ice machine to a New Orleans grocer. This article at Wikipedia would seem to agree. Clearly further research is needed, but I did enjoy learning about other incarnations such as the granizado, piragua, and raspado.

Meanwhile, great article about the true Baltimore snowball here, courtesy of the City Paper. Sources interviewed for this article date snowball consumption in Charm City to the turn of the last century, well before the New Orleans machine was invented, but not necessarily disproving the Big Easy's claim to fame since the earliest snowballs were apparently hand-shaved. Anyway, RTWT for cultural significance. The references to Gino's, Wild Bill, Chessie, etc. really take me back. Guess I'll have to put on some Crack the Sky now. Video below: "Ice" (get it?) performed live in 1998.]

1 comment:

Matt Mullenix said...

We used to eat raspados in Panama almost daily, but I haven't thought of them since leaving the country. We pronounced it "ras-pau," which wouldn't be correct even in Spanish, but maybe that was the local dialect.

The ones we had were made from sweet, tangy powdered milk poured over shaved ice and were something like a white russian in impact. Maybe the milk was sour. Certainly there were no health certificates visible on the vendors' carts. :-)