Monday, May 16, 2011

#6. Put marshmallow on your snowball.

.......My first snowball of the summer. Life is, quite literally, sweet.

While flipping between the men’s NCAA lacrosse playoffs and the O’s game (a very Baltimore-esque spring activity) the mood struck me for an egg-custard snowball with marshmallow. Even though all Baltimore residents perceive snowballs to be a well-known, universally enjoyed summer treat, rarely are  snowballs found (or even heard of) outside the tri-state area. This is because what we now know as a snowball around these parts actually may have originated in Baltimore.
In actuality, snowballs have been around for centuries. Back in ancient roman times, the wealthy would send servants to retrieve snow from the tops of local mountains. The snow was brought back and flavored with honey and fruit syrups to become the world’s first snowballs. Shaved and flavored ices eventually went out of style until the 1850’s, when they made a comeback in a huge way. During the Industrial Revolution in America, ice houses sprung up in north-eastern states like New York. These ice houses shipped ice to much warmer southern states, such as Florida. A large block of ice was placed in a wagon and sent southward, straight through Baltimore city, Maryland. Children in Baltimore would collect small chunks or scrapings of ice, which they brought back to their mothers who would crush and flavor them with home-made flavorings. Egg-custard was a popular flavoring and easy to make, only consisting of eggs, vanilla and sugar; this mixture could be whipped up quickly in anticipation of even quicker melting ice.
Later in the century, when inventions such as the automobile made ice even more readily available, theaters in Baltimore began selling snowballs during the summer months. Once again, the snowball had become trendy amongst the upper class (they would have been featured in Vogue, had it existed, as the new “hot” summer trend). Hand shavers were used to grind up ice and more flavorings were available than just quick kitchen-made confections. However, hand-shavers were quickly becoming outdated. In the 1870’s, six different patents were filed for electric ice-shavers and the snowball revolution began.
              The Great Depression and World War II, as well as the increasing availability of electricity, would be the catalyst for snowballs becoming a commonly available and beloved Baltimore treat. Because ice had become so cheap and flavorings (such as the ever popular egg-custard) so easily made and inexpensive, snowballs went from being a hoity-toity theater confection to being one of the only treats folks could afford. In the summer, people who had fallen on hard times would sell snowballs on the street, topped with the also inexpensive marshmallow for rock-bottom prices. This earned the marshmallow topped snowball the moniker “The Hard-Times Sundae” or the “Penny Sundae.”
             Journalist Michelle Grainow quotes an 80 year old Grace Phillips who reminisces about summer-life in East Baltimore in the 1920s: “We went to a place at Washington Street and Clifton Park, where the man sold snowballs for two and five cents out of a little store. The nickel cup was made with syrup he made himself, with real pieces of fruit, that he ladled out of big bowls—that came with marshmallow. The two-cents one was just the regular flavor out of bottles, and that was the one we had to get because we were kids without any money—if you had a nickel you were lucky. We’d come out of swimming at the park, and you’d have to stand in line for half an hour or so to get your snowball, and they had three or four men working behind the counter.” [read Michelle's whole article here]
Snowballs stayed popular when the economy bounced back during World War II; all available ice-cream was shipped to the troops fighting a hard war overseas.
              Sure, flavored ice-confections are available in other places throughout the country and the world. For instance, the “snow cone,” which is a hard-packed flavored ice frozen in the shape of a cone is popular all over the country but especially the Midwest. In the south, especially New Orleans, they have “snowballs,” however I place the word in italics because this so-called snowball is a much more syrupy flavoring poured over finely shaved ice of a more flat and less crunchy texture (probably much more similar to the honey-flavored snow of ancient Rome). Italian ices and Slurpees are also quite popular, but very different from the simple crushed and flavored Baltimore favorite. In fact, one of the largest snowball supply distributors, Koldkiss, is Baltimore based.
             All in all, flavored ice is a historically popular summer snack all over the world. The Baltimore snowball, however, is a unique product of the socioeconomic environment and geographical location of the city, coming together by fate to produce this delicious treat. The vibrant orange, marshmallow topped, crunchy egg-custard snowball is more Baltimore than “hons” some would say, and definitely the best snowball in the world. Not to sound ethnocentric or anything :] I would recommend either the Polar Shack in Arbutus, MD or Opie's in Catonsville MD for the best Baltimore-style snowballs around.
Come back later this week!


Ethnocentric: having an attitude that one’s group or culture is better than others


  1. I am craving eskimo shack now! thanks!

  2. I might have missed something, but in what way are baltimore area snow balls different? They're definitely different from the snowcones I get at the beach, but I can't really figure out what the difference is.

  3. "maryland" snowballs are finely crushed ice in cups with syrup flavoring. snow cones are the same type of ice but packed into a cone shape, flavored and re-frozen