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Food Porn: Of love and sno-balls

This is what heaven would look like if it were piled into a plastic cup.

This is what heaven would look like if it were piled into a plastic cup.

When Hansen's Sno-Bliz opened earlier this month, it was hardly what you'd call "sno-ball weather."  The day was lugubriously gray, damp and chilly, the kind of weather you'd expect to find in Oregon rather than in New Orleans (though early March is always a crapshoot in NOLA, weather-wise).  Still, that didn't keep people from literally lining up around the block to taste their first sno-ball of the season.

To some, this would seem silly.  To others, a kind of obsession, or even addiction: folks packed into a block-long queue for a cold dessert treat like junkies at a methadone clinic.  And to this I say: If you don't understand why someone would wait for 45 minutes in the damp chill for shaved ice and sugary syrup, you've clearly never experienced a Hansen's sno-ball.

Like many other iconic foods treasured by New Orleanians, there are sno-balls, and then there are sno-balls.  It's the same with the roast beef po-boy, an oyster loaf, crawfish bisque, fried chicken or babecue'd shrimp.  These dishes abound in the Big Easy, but there's always one place that clearly stands above the rest.  Usually, it's the one you first experienced as a child, and even more often, the one that your parents or grandparents first experienced as children.

At seventy-five years young, Hansen's is thought to be the oldest sno-ball stand in the country.  And, like so many treasures to be found in the Crescent City, its origin is a love story.  Ashley Hansen, who took over the shop from her beloved grandparents Ernest and Mary and continues to run it today, told it to me with a mix of gratitude and nostalgia.

"When they met," said Hansen, "my grandfather was looking for something for his car, and my grandmother's brother was working at an automobile shop.  When my grandfather saw my grandmother, he said, 'You're the girl I'm going to marry.'  And my grandmother took one look at him and replied, 'Aw, you crazy.  I'm gonna call my father!  Get out of here!'  Every day after that, he came in here to see her. For six months.  Their first real date was actually at Louis Prima's birthday party, at a place called The Golden Pumpkin, out in Lakeview.  Her parents weren't going to let her go, but her brothers were all into the music scene and played in bands, and they said, 'You should let her go, because that guy's going to be famous one day!'  So they let her go, and then a little while later my father proposed.  They were married for 72 years."

While Ernest worked as a machinist -- he both invented and patented the "Hansen's Ice Shaving Machine,"a device unique unto all other sno-ball machines -- Mary tended the shop, which was always her passion.  And when Ernest retired from the machine shops, they tended it together, rarely leaving each other's side.  "They wouldn't go for a walk or go to the K&B without each other," said Ashley.  "It's a beautiful love story.  Love and sno-balls."

If you've never had the pure, unabashed joy that is a Hansen's sno-ball, you're missing out on one of the finest creations New Orleans has ever offered humankind.  It's right up there with Jazz, as far as I'm concerned.  The first thing you'll notice, when you dig into a Sno-Bliz, is the texture of the ice, immediately distinctive among all other shaved ice concoctions.  It's so fine, soft, and perfectly fluffy, you'd think you were eating fresh powder directly off the top of an Alpine peak.  This is not hyperbole.  This is fact.

But Hansen's only begins with ice.  You couldn't have a true New Orleans sno-ball without syrups and toppings, and this is where Sno-Bliz truly breaks away from the pack.  Sure, they have the basics -- lemon, spearmint, watermelon, bubblegum and so forth -- but Ashley Hansen has added to the menu new, sometimes exotic (and always lovingly handmade) syrup flavors, all of which can be combined with any of the others.  The result is a nearly vertiginous variety of possible flavor profiles, including honey lavender, ginger cayenne, blueberry cardamom, anise and cream-of-chocolate, and more.  So much more.  Top that off with some thick condensed milk and a dash of sprinkles or crushed strawberries (particularly amazing with lemon), and you have a treat that will make you forget whatever it was that might have been bothering before you spooned that sno-ball into your mouth.

"People don't understand in other cities how good a sno-ball really is," Hansen told me.  "When they come in from other cities and experience the 95 degree heat in August, and then taste a satsuma sno-ball, they get it.  Or anytime of year, really, in my view.  It's just delicious, and simple."

To that I'll say: amen.  Congrats on 75 years, Hansen's.  Here's to 75 more, and 75 more after that.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.