Baltimore’s favorite summer treat once meant opportunity for all
You may think you know what a snowball is. That conical treatment of chunky ice where all of the flavor drops out of the bottom of a paper triangle? Nope, that’s a snow cone. That fruity, pureed ice that you have to scrape with a wooden spoon? Wrong again, that’s Italian ice. Or maybe the fluffy bowl of ice with condensed milk on top? Nope, that’s Hawaiian shave ice.
The snowball is one of my favorite summertime snacks of all time. A classic Baltimore snowball arrives in a styrofoam cup: shaved ice sloshed with sweet syrup – mostly artificial flavoring and not any of that “real fruit” stuff – and typically topped with marshmallow cream. While the ice is shaved, it’s not fine enough to dissolve, leaving the snowball chunky and intact enough to survive humid Baltimore summers. Most of us from Charm City would say that these treats are as imperative to a complete summer as cracking through a bushel of steamed crabs. Snowballs are the quintessential summertime dessert for many Baltimoreans. Why then does nobody know what they are?
In the late 1800s when ice became widely available to the average citizen, huge carts of ice travelled through Maryland. The drivers would shave off some of the ice to give to children. The children then took the shavings home and quickly made flavorings for their new treats. During the 1920s shaved and flavored ice was sold during plays when customers needed to cool off during a long and hot show.
The Great Depression only heightened the snowball’s popularity because the treat was cheap to make and cheap to buy (today, most will still cost you under one dollar. In 1932, the stands were so numerous that people complained there were too many in their neighborhoods. Baltimore’s mayor at the time, Harold W. Jackson, defended the purveyors, saying, “Some of us may be down to eat snowballs soon, and I don’t want to put any limitations on the trade.”
The modern snowball has its roots in the Great Depression, when standardized syrups could be purchased instead of homemade ones. Because of the low cost of ice, snowballs could be purchased for just two cents. This was one of the few treats that people could afford, and thus snowballs became very popular. Another facet of the story is that setting up a snowball stand is easy, as is making the treats, and many people turned to snowball making to sustain themselves. After the Depression, snowballs stayed popular throughout the war, when ice cream was nowhere to be found. While U.S. troops ate ice cream, everyday citizens were eating snowballs as their main icy treat.
After the war, moms in town began to make flavorings to sweeten the ice. The most common was a simple golden-hued egg custard – made with eggs, vanilla, and sugar – and that’s still the most popular flavor to this day, now mimicked with a vanilla-laced syrup. Melted marshmallow, which is sticky but pourable, became a common topping, adding a dollop of sweetness and a creamy texture to the snowball.
The snowball remained popular, and is relatively unchanged to this day. Because the snowball is such an amazing little ice clump, it does make you wonder why you can’t have one right now (unless you live in Baltimore)?
The closest thing to a Baltimore snowball can be found in New Orleans. But in the Big Easy rendition, the ice is shaved more finely, for a consistency that’s delicate and light but easily turns soupy.
Making a snowball is pretty simple:
An ice machine churns out the shaved ice, which can then be shaped into a cone, a dome, or just flattened down.
Flavoring is poured on top.
Lastly, topping of your choosing is ladled on.
Ask the snow ball attendant to include some marshmallow in the middle, too, for maximum effect.
The most exceptional snowball comes from Icy Delights, a mini-chain with locations in Rosedale, Dundalk, and Highlandtown. The ice is finely shaved and soft allowing the bold flavors to blend seamlessly with the ice, and the flavor doesn’t drain out. Icy Delights doubles as an ice cream shop and you can get ice cream toppings like caramel on top of your snowball. Don’t worry about not having enough marshmallow. They know to add marshmallow in the middle of your snowball.
Snoasis in Timonium also excels in the snowball texture department: the ice is shaved just right between coarse and fine, and is served in a crater-like shape that allows for a silky pool of marshmallow topping. Snoasis, like many local stands, gets its concentrated flavors from Koldkiss in Fells Point, but the owners mix and match the syrups to create custom flavors – more than 80 in all.
Summer Shack in Lutherville serves chunkier ice, forcing you to chop it with a plastic spoon, but the snowball holds a solid texture the entire time you eat it. The flavors are extremely bold leaving a distinct coloring on your tongue.
For more than 20 years, One Sweet Moment has been in business and is located in a row-house in the Hamilton neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. Their ice is finely shaved, almost velvety, and they offer a lot of kid-friendly flavors like Batman.
Walther Gardens, which offers a nursery with hoop houses and beautiful sunflowers in bloom behind the snowball stand. The stand boasts all homemade flavors and a killer bittersweet chocolate-marshmallow topping. Try a spearmint snowball and the result is like a York peppermint patty: the perfect mix of cool mint and rich chocolate.
Want a waterfront view with your snowball? Stouten’s Snowball Stop is located in a marina in Dundalk (a bit east of the city). They also offer a drive-thru option to satisfy cravings on the go. Stouten’s uses plenty of syrup for bold flavoring (like a puckering sour cherry), shapes its snowballs into cones, and blankets the entire top with marshmallow cream.
Want to try a Baltimore snowball outside its home base? Baltimore natives ply their hometown summer dessert as far as Skylite Snowballs in San Francisco and Baltimore Snowball Factory in Sarasota, Florida.