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Sno-Balls: How a Sub-Tropical Metropolis Became Known for Its Sno(w)

I am a 6th generation New Orleans native and the daughter of a former sno-ball stand owner.

When people think of New Orleans, snow is not something that comes to mind, especially during the summer months. There is a good reason for this; the sub-tropical climate makes for a town more synonymous for its overbearing humidity.

Ironically, however, it is this incalescent tenor overtaking the area that has long been the inspiration for this snow. For years, residents and visitors alike have sought ways to beat the heat, thus leading to the creation of one of New Orleans' most iconic summer treats.

What began with street vendors manually scraping blocks of ice has through the years grown into a staple that has expanded beyond the confines of New Orleans and is steadily spreading across the country.

Refreshing, affordable, and customizable to personal taste, their popularity is no wonder. We can thank two New Orleans gentlemen for getting the ball rolling (no pun intended) and creating the industry known as Sno-Balls.

Center image is a relic from my father's sno-ball stand back in 1976.

Center image is a relic from my father's sno-ball stand back in 1976.

The Cone-Less Distinction and its Pioneers

First things first -- it does not do the sno-ball justice without clarifying what the sno-ball isn't. This means pointing out its distinction from a snow cone, as sold from your conventional ice cream trucks and concession stands. Though the two confections may look similar -- are commonly thought to be one in the same -- only one has the consistency of actual snow. This is because rather than crushing the ice, it is finely shaved, allowing it to absorb your flavored syrup of choice rather than having it simply poured over top (and sinking to the bottom). Gerard Hansen of the Hansen family who are the founders of the oldest operating sno-ball stand in the world, explains:

"You actually put the syrup on in layers to get consistency throughout the body of the sno-ball. So therefore, the flavor stays with you throughout the process of eating it."

Sno-balls are also far more elaborate. There is generally a wider variety of flavors, with the option of adding toppings (condensed milk is especially popular) or even stuffing them with ice cream. Some establishments have made the decoration of the sno-ball an art form, such as Snola in Uptown New Orleans, famous for their cheesecake-stuffed version.

Autochrome image of children gathered around a French Quarter sno-ball vendor, published in the April 1930 issue of National Geographic.

Autochrome image of children gathered around a French Quarter sno-ball vendor, published in the April 1930 issue of National Geographic.

New Orleanians' enjoyment of shaved ice during the summer months can be traced as far back as the 19th century, when vendors used to chip the shavings off of an ice block by hand. By the 1920's, this practice became popular, and hand-held ice shavers were designed explicitly for the purpose.

In the 1930's, two machinists dedicated themselves to improving this method, albeit for different reasons. While their respective enterprises evolved independently of one another, it would seem they developed side by side, as both provided New Orleans with just the thing in the midst of the Great Depression during those infamous summer heat waves.

These two men were Ernest Hansen and George Ortolano.

Ernest Hansen and the Sno-Bliz

Ernest and Mary Hansen and their "Sno Bliz" machine.

Ernest and Mary Hansen and their "Sno Bliz" machine.

The first of New Orleans' sno-ball pioneers was Ernest Hansen, who engineered the ships docked along the Mississippi. On one of these sweltering summer days, he and his son were craving some shaved ice. They caught an ice cart wheeling past, where the vendor manually shaved the ice from a large block.

Hansen was disenchanted by this method, as it made the ice prone to contact with sweaty hands plus the dirt and grime particles of the city air prior to even getting to eat it. Motivated to improve the sanitation of the product, he sought a more hands-off method of preparing the ice.

Using his engineering background, Hansen got to work in 1933 to construct an entirely electric ice shaving machine. He completed his invention in 1934.

At first, Hansen's machine was strictly a home and family affair, but two years later his wife, Mary, got the idea to set it up outside on a makeshift stand and sell shaved ice topped with her homemade flavored syrups. This experiment was successful, and by 1939, the family was able to open their first brick and mortar store and trademarked their sno-balls under the name "Sno-Bliz." They moved to their current location, a white shack on Tchoupitoulas Street, in 1944.

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Mary continued to make all of her syrups from scratch. Though she had started with the "safe," familiar flavors of strawberry, blueberry, and grape, customer satisfaction emboldened her to experiment. She entered a period of frenzied flavor innovation and created such new flavors as cream of nectar, cream of coconut, and even chocolate. These syrups would be made fresh each day to ensure their quality -- a tradition that granddaughter Ashley, who runs the sno-ball stand today, has continued.

Hansen's Sno-Bliz remains the world's oldest operating sno-ball stand, still running Ernest Hansen's original Sno-Bliz machine, which he patented in 1950. Hansen's is iconic for their exotic -- and sometimes limited -- flavors, concocted with secret recipes. Some of these include: "Brown Pelican" (root beer based), cream of wedding cake, and banana's foster, topped with real bananas caramelized in brown sugar and vanilla.

George Ortolano and the SnoWizard

George Ortolano in front of his corner grocery store.

George Ortolano in front of his corner grocery store.

Almost parallel to the shaved ice enterprising of Ernest Hansen, George Ortolano, son of Sicilian immigrants, developed a similar vision. Unlike Hanen, Ortolano was already an established entrepreneur. He owned a small grocery store, which he was struggling to keep afloat during the Great Depression.

He noticed a gathering of customers at a nearby snow cone stand, was inspired to sell the inexpensive treat in his store to draw in new customers.

In 1936, Ortolano created his own ice shaving machine to produce "fine, fluffy, shaven" snow from blocks of ice used in household ice boxes. The second world war, however, interrupted his business developments, and his engineering efforts were temporarily re-directed towards shipbuilding for the military.

Ortolano meanwhile acquainted his family with his machine, who, in turn, introduced the sno-ball to their own grocery stores. The sale of sno-balls generated a slow but steady stream of new business. Regulars buying these sno-balls in Ortolano's store became intrigued with his machine, and Ortolano soon began receiving requests for it from people eager to begin their own businesses.

Unlike Ernest Hansen, who opted to keep his machine unique to his own shop, Ortolano was open to the idea of selling his invention, and set out to improve his original wooden machine for commercial use and production. He developed a new model made from galvanized metal, incorporating knowledge he had gained from his shipyard experience during wartime.

If Ortolano was going to sell his machine, however, he would need a name. He considered many, with "Ice Commando" being a top candidate. Ultimately, he settled on the name of "Snow Wizard" because it was, by his own description, "like magic the way it turned blocks of ice into fine, fluffy snow."

Conceptual drawing of George Ortolano's SnoWizard machine.

Conceptual drawing of George Ortolano's SnoWizard machine.

As demand for Ortolano's Snow Wizard machine increased, so did the time he would spend manufacturing them. He abandoned the grocery business completely to devote all of his energies to his budding new enterprise. After initially manufacturing most of his machine parts by hand, Ortolano was forced to automate production to keep pace with sales.

Blueprints were drawn to standardize the parts and automate assembly, and the galvanized metal was upgraded to stainless steel. This re-designed model warranted a modernized take on the machine's name. The "w" was dropped from "snow," and the two words were fused together into one: SnoWizard.

Like Mary Hansen, Ortolano's wife, Josie (affectionally known as "Mrs. O"), created her own flavors from original recipes. The flavors and extracts from the family grocery store gave her a plethora of possibilities. Josie's trademark was to combine flavors with cream, which earned her the nickname "Queen of Cream" from customers. Her nectar cream, ice cream, and chocolate cream flavors became local favorites.

Today, the SnoWizard enterprise continues to supply both their machines and their endless array of flavors to sno-ball makers worldwide.

Pelicans' "Unicorn" sno-ball.

Pelicans' "Unicorn" sno-ball.

Sno-Ball Season

There are a few sno-ball joints that operate year-round, but most establishments only sell them seasonally. Sno-ball season generally runs from March to October.

While New Orleans remains, by far, the hotbed for sno-ball options, the industry has been growing nationwide. Pelicans, for instance, has built up a large chain with locations spanning over 17 states. Look up "sno-balls" (or "snoballs") in your local area to see if this tasty treat is available near you!

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