As the summer temperatures rise, so do our cravings for icy treats to beat the heat. Although they may seem like a simple combination of syrup and ice, there is a colorful history behind the many varieties of shaved ice Americans consume each summer. Get the low down on snow cones, snowballs and Italian ice.
Now an iconic summer treat, it is fitting that snow cones were debuted at another classic example of summertime Americana: the state fair. In 1919 East Dallas resident Samuel Bert, locally known as “King Sammie,” began selling the icy treats at the State Fair of Texas. The following year, he patented his ice crusher machine, and by the early 1950s his stand at the state fair was selling an estimated 1 million snow cones per year. Snow cones are distinguished by the crunchy consistency of the crushed ice, with the flavored syrup collecting in the ice and the wax cone in which it is typically served. Snow cones are also a popular local treat in Hawaii, where they are called “shave ice” and are known for their signature flavor: rainbow.
Unlike snow cones, which are made with crushed ice and a conservative pouring of syrup, snowballs are made with shaved ice, giving them a fluffy, snow-like texture. They are also doused with more syrup than traditional snow cones, which is absorbed by the finely powdered ice, so they are served in a cup and eaten with a spoon or straw. Although New Orleans may try to claim the title of snowball capitol of the United States, this tasty treat actually got its start in Baltimore. During the Industrial Revolution, wagons carrying ice blocks from New York to the southern United States would pass through Baltimore and hand out ice shavings to kids, whose parents would then add flavoring. The treat became a popular concession treat at movie theaters and remains a Baltimore tradition today, set apart by its signature dollop of marshmallow cream.
The Big Easy also takes pride in its influence on this colorful summer dessert. There are a number of snowball shops in the city, but for the quintessential New Orleans snowball experience, people head to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, founded by the Ernest Hansen and his wife, Mary. Ernest invented the first electric ice-shaving machine, and Mary concocted the syrup recipes. They opened the shop in 1939 and sold their signature treats for two cents each. While they may cost you more than a few pennies today, these snowballs still remain Nola’s favorite way to stay cool in the hot Louisiana summers.
Italian ices are distinguished from snow cones and snowballs by the flavor mixing process: while they are soft like snowballs, the flavor is mixed in as the ice is made, rather than poured over the ice after serving, making it more similar to a sorbet. Some believe that Italian ice was created under Nero’s reign–legend has it that Nero’s servants would mix snow from the mountains with fruit to create one of the emperor’s favorite desserts. Fortunately, today we are spared a trek to the mountains and have to look no further than the corner stand or freezer aisle to cool down with one of these delicious summer treats.