The History of the Sno(w)ball

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The snowball (it is most often spelled with w), by its Baltimore definition, is cheap, easy to make, refreshing, delicious, and even hydrating. And yet for whatever reason, it is virtually nonexistent in all but a few select cities across the United States,one of which, of course, is Baltimore.

Although today this signature treat comes in a variety of artificial, neon flavors, its origins are much more natural.  In ancient Rome and Japan, rulers and wealthy citizens dispatched servants to the mountains to collect snow, which they then flavored with fruit or honey.  Many years later, the Japanese brought this idea with them to Hawaii.  The American Industrial Revolution made ice commercially available for the first time in history.  Cooler, northeastern states would ship enormous blocks of ice to places like Florida and Louisiana.  The ice route passed right through Baltimore, where children would ask for shavings of ice – shaved, not crushed.  As this became customary, mothers began to prepare syrups to flavor the shaved ice.  Egg custard, a simple combination of eggs, vanilla, and sugar, and one of the easiest flavors to make, is still a favorite in Baltimore today.

Twenty years after the snoball made its debut in Baltimore, it was so popular that theaters sold it to patrons during the sweltering summer months.  Because theatergoers were generally the wealthier citizens, snoballs developed a reputation as an upper-class commodity, just as they had in ancient times.  Half a century later, the country fell into depression and snoballs became a national phenomenon.  They were easier, and more importantly cheaper than ice cream, and became fondly known as “Penny Sundaes.”  During World War II, materials like cream and rock salt were too precious to be used for ice cream, and once again snoballs were there to fill the void.  But once the war ended and people were no longer driven to frugality by depression, the snoball’s popularity slowly diminished.  These days one can still get a true snoball – shaved, not crushed – in Baltimore and Hawaii, as well as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the Jersey Shore.

A “snoball” is not to be confused with a “snowball” or a “snocone.”  Though in its youth, the modern day snoball was likely referred to as a “snowball,” these days, in a society that uses phonetic spelling as an excuse for poor spelling, we have dropped the offending “w.”  A snowball is an icy lump thrown at others during the winter.  A snocone, apparently, is not a real thing.  Those who use the term are hopelessly out of it.

The old favorite flavors are still around – egg custard, root beer, skylite – but in recent summers new flavors have joined the menus at local snoball stands.  I recently visited the stand nearest to my house and was surprised by and then skeptical about the wide variety of choices.  For example, if I were so inclined, I could get an ice cream flavored snoball.  I don’t know what generic ‘ice cream’ tastes like, since in my experience ice cream comes in different flavors as well, and I also don’t know why I wouldn’t just buy ice cream, instead of ice cream flavored ice, but I guess some people enjoy it.  If I were completely insane, I could order a Shrek flavored snoball.  I was so mystified by this that I asked the kid behind the counter about it and was informed that it was a combination of chocolate and spearmint, because those are “swamp colors.”  Mint chocolate is also on the menu, so maybe people order the Shrek flavor after they’ve asked about it and decided that, yes, what the old mint chocolate flavor was missing a good, old fashioned swamp association.  I don’t know.  There was also a Cars flavor, which I didn’t even question.  I guess its just unleaded regular on ice.

The snoball has come a long way.  Literally all the way around the world.  It has had its ups and downs, and while it has fallen out of favor with much of the nation, Baltimore remains faithful, reopening stands summer after summer, inventing new, bizarre flavors, and packing hundreds of cups with syrup and ice – shaved, not crushed.

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  1. I never knew about the traveling ice blocks, Baltimore is so unique! The stands around my way have closer to 100 flavors – some of them inspired by, and filled with, pieces of candy.

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