When you ask a Baltimorean about their favorite summertime food memories, you will likely hear tales of crab feasts from throughout their lives, and maybe about the time Aunt Josie alone ate two dozen crabs while polishing off her own pitcher of beer. But if you dig just a little deeper beyond the crab seasoning, then you will undoubtedly hear us locals wonderfully rhapsodizing about our snowballs, that very-Baltimore summer delicacy of ice enjoyed on the hot, humid evenings of summer.

For those unfamiliar with snowballs, they are sweet treats of shaved ice–not crushed, packed ice as found in snow cones–drenched with a plethora of flavored sugary syrups and all sorts of optional condiments. Snowballs are sold from snowball stands, of course, and these stands can run from an elaborate shed-like building adorned with colored lights, to a simple folding table covered with a plastic tablecloth. All stands feature the essential shaved ice machine poised and ready to conquer big chunks of ice, as well as the numerous bottles of flavored syrups. Regardless of the surroundings the results are usually the same: a delightful and refreshing icy treat slathered with your favorite flavoring and toppings.

As is typical of Baltimore history, there are numerous stories on how the snowball originated, but there seems to be a general consensus that the concept had its origins in the mid 1800’s when the international ice trade made it to the southern climates via Baltimore. It is said that local housewives would secure some chunks of ice and crush it into a fine, slushy ice. The original flavor was what we now call Egg Custard, but unlike the artificially-flavored version we currently consume–and which happens to be my favorite, artificial or not!–the original was an actual egg custard, made in a similar fashion as a creme anglaise is made. It was prepared with real, free-range eggs, and possessed a rich, yellow-hued color. The final product then was chilled and poured over the shaved ice.

I grew up in Parkville, Maryland and was fortunate to have a slew of snowball stands within a short walk. Right up the alley and around the corner was the Winkleman family snowball stand. It was a fine-looking, sturdy wooden structure, stringed with lights to enable snowball making until late in the night. Ricky Winkleman and his sister Sharon stocked all the basic flavors from Egg Custard to Bubblegum, to Tutti-Frutti, Spearmint and Cotton Candy. And for a nominal upcharge, there was Chocolate, of course. Speed up to the present and nowadays snowball stands offer an endless list of flavors, including some housemade signature items particular to that stand.

Back when I grew up in the 1950’s & 60’s eating a snowball in August was an act of self-preservation as we did not have much in the way of air-conditioning. Only snowballs (and movie theaters) could provide the much needed relief from the unrelenting summer heat. And the snowball stand was the social center of the neighborhood for us kids, a place where we would gather at the same time each evening, just to hang out in our short-shorts and flip flops and talk about the day’s events and what we might do the next day, during our long school-free summer.

I believe the Great Pandemic of 2020 has been a boon for the snowball world, as folks seek out comfort in food and fond memories. And fortunately most of the classic, long-lived snowball stands are still in operation. I inquired with some of my snowball-lovin’ friends and many of the same favorites kept coming up: One Sweet Moment in Hamilton, Walther Gardens in Lauraville, Opie’s Soft Serve & Snowballs in Catonsville, Quality Snowballs in Hampden, and Elizabeth & Zyggie”s Snowballs in Parkville. Please don’t be upset with me if I just neglected to mention here your favorite stand–this is Baltimore after all, and I know us locals express fierce devotion and loyalty to “our” particular snowball stand, just as we do with crab cakes.

Fortunately for the Baltimore snowball world many newcomers have arrived on the scene, and one of the newest snowball stands to join the ranks of “favorites” is Ice Queens Snowballs in Locust Point. Owner Dasia Kabia fulfilled a lifelong dream to have her own snowball stand, and she has put together an impressive collection of custom-made flavorings. My snowball sleuths are raving about the Pina Colada version that they recently enjoyed there.

And now I too have decided to bring the snowball scene closer to my home: our crew at Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen teamed up with the Baltimore Museum of Art to create the Snow Cone Sisters Cafe. The name is a tribute to Baltimore’s own Cone Sisters, Etta and Claribell, whose savvy art knowledge and generosity made the world famous Cone Collection a reality at the BMA. At our modest snowball stand our chefs gathered all of the classic flavors, and then went to town concocting their own signature blends. And we thought some local hot dogs, along with a delicious snowball, is the perfect summertime treat, so a variety of dogs are also available. I invite you to visit us to enjoy our authentic Baltimore delicacies, while you wander around the beautiful BMA Wurtzburger and Levi Sculpture Gardens.