reporting from new orleans
I drive alongside the grassy slope of the Mississippi River levee and turn east at Magazine Street, traveling past Audubon Zoo toward downtown. It's a narrow, bumpy street shaded by giant oaks, their roots upending great chunks of sidewalk. But nobody seems to mind. This is New Orleans.
I'm on a quest to find the best snowball in a city filled with stands. Don't mistake a snowball for a snow cone. The former is soft like powder snow, the latter crunchy like hard pack. Fluffy snowballs are served with a straw and a spoon and brim with vividly flavored syrups with names such as wedding cake, hurricane and nectar. Each stand has dozens to choose from. Another difference: With a snow cone, you can suck the flavor right out of the mouthful of ice. Not so with a snowball. The flavor and snow become one indivisible creation.
The first thing you do when handed your snowball is scoop out a spoonful or bite off the peaked top. Hang out at any stand and watch the next 20 people who receive their cup or carton, and 19 of them will, before getting two steps away, have the first bite in their mouth
4001 Magazine St., (504) 899-8758
A Tuesday in June, 2 p.m.
Temperature: 96 degrees
As I head for this iconic snowball stand, operated by the local makers of the SnoWizard ice-shaving machine, I worry about parking. You don't use the uber-hip Magazine Street as a thoroughfare to get anywhere fast. It's its own destination. And because the street didn't flood during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it never lost the chic momentum that's been years in the making. You'll find yoga studios, spas, ethnic restaurants, coffeehouses, pubs, European furniture shops and wallet-draining boutiques along with such staples as an auto mechanic, Laundromat, a Baptist church, stately houses, rundown Creole cottages and a big, gleaming Whole Foods Market.
So it is with joy that I discover that the Sno- Wizard stand on the corner of Constantinople has its own parking lot out front. The blue-gray brick building has a narrow white trellis providing a shady place to sit. Out near the street, a sign in the shape of a snow-topped cup says: "60 Fabulous Flavors" and "The Original New Orleans SnoBall Since 1937."
(There is a longtime controversy about who invented the first snowball machine, and there is a lawsuit pending about the copyrighted names of various snowball flavors. And few agree on the spelling -- "snowball," "snoball," "sno-ball" or "snow-ball"? Like sausage-making and politics, the process of snowball creation might best remain a mystery.)
The flavor choices are daunting: almond, amaretto, banana, Cajun red hot, cotton candy, lemon-lime, dreamsicle cream, pralines and cream, mango and dozens more. New flavors include mudslide, cherimoya, mojito and cake batter cream. I choose a medium Granny Smith apple and ice cream. With some added condensed milk (50 cents), this might taste like frosty pie a la mode. Cost: $2.75. I'm served my concoction in a tub that resembles a Chinese-food container. It's a messy brew and seems too slushy and heavy at first. But the blend satisfies. When I'm finished, I look into my empty container and wonder: Why didn't I order a large?
1823 Metairie Ave., (504) 666-1823 (Metairie)
A Tuesday in June, 8 p.m.
Temperature: 92 degrees
I'm partial to afternoon snowballs, but a lively culture of after-dinner snowballers is evident at Sal's Sno-Balls, which is open till 11 every night in Old Metairie, a suburb northwest of New Orleans. Real estate ads in Old Metairie, which had minimal Katrina flooding, may include this enticement: "Walk to Sal's Sno-Balls."
Sal's, which has been around 49 years, has a roomy gravel parking lot. On a patio out front, patrons spoon from their cups and sit on fake but comfortable logs. This isn't the kind of snowball stand where you grab the goods and run. You want to linger, socialize and share tastes.
A board lists 52 flavors, three sugar-free: strawberry, grape and wedding cake. The child-size strawberry I order with added condensed milk (called "can cream") is a vibrant pick-me-up in the evening's heated air and costs less than $2. The snow is crunchier than at SnoWizard. I'm told this sometimes happens when the ice-shaving blade is not sharp. The texture also depends on the temperature of the ice and the pressure with which it's fed through the machine.
On the other hand, readers' comments in the local newspaper state that Sal's has the softest, fluffiest, most-powder-snow-like ice around. And the place is packed. An article on the website of SnoWizard, where Sal's gets its syrup, says the stand can use 1,000 pounds of ice per night.
Plum Street Snowballs,
1300 Burdette St., (504) 866-7996 (Riverbend/Carrollton)
A Wednesday in June, 3 p.m.
Temperature: 96 degrees