Hansen's Sno-Bliz Snoballs - Gastro Obscura
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Hansen's Sno-Bliz Snoballs

The first patented shaved-ice machine heralded a snowy wonderland of iced treats at a favorite New Orleans summer shack.

Lovers of flavored ice in the colors of the rainbow, follow the yellow brick road to Hansen’s in the Big Easy. And that’s meant quite literally, since the owners had to paint a yellow line marking the pathway toward sugared-ice brain freeze in order to manage the long, snaking lines at this favorite snoball shop.

The snoball is a New Orleanian iced treat that (controversial opinion alert) improves upon the classic snow cone. All thanks to the engineering skills of Ernest Hansen, the erstwhile proprietor of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, which has been in business since 1939. The snow cone is made of coarser chips of syrup-doused ice that can be crunched on, while a little puddle of flavored sugar syrup forms in the bottom of the cup, to be enjoyed as a sweet ending. The snoball on the other hand, is just as it sounds, a ball of ice shaved smooth enough to resemble a snowball. Sweet, flavored syrup is swirled on top, and melds perfectly with the “snow,” making each slurp and lick a smooth, sugary flavor bonanza. An otherworldly respite in the hot summer, akin to making snow angels with your tongue.

It all started with the sticky heat of summer. Ernest Hansen and his son were hankering for a shaved ice on a muggy summer’s day in Depression-era New Orleans, when they saw an ice cart wheeling past. Watching the ice vendor manually shave some from a large block—dirty hands, sweat, and the dust and grime of the city all adding unwelcome garnishes to the treat even before the syrup flavor had been chosen—put off the elder Hansen. He was determined that no unwashed hand should touch the icy dessert made for his children. Hansen’s entrepreneurial vision and engineering acumen led him to make an entirely electric ice-shaving machine in 1934. Although Hansen patented his machine in 1950, it is worth noting that, elsewhere in New Orleans, George Ortolano had also made his own electric ice-shaver in 1936, solidifying the town’s standing as arguably the only subtropical city known for its snow.

At first, Hansen’s motored ice-shaver was just put to home use. But in 1936, Hansen’s wife, Mary, had the idea to set the machine outside on a makeshift stand, and sell some snoballs with her own homemade flavored syrups. In 1939, the family opened their first brick-and-mortar store, and trademarked their snoballs under the name Sno-Bliz. Mary Hansen made all her own flavored syrups from scratch, beginning with safe options such as grape, blueberry, and strawberry. Emboldened by their success, Mrs. Hansen entered a period of frenzied flavor innovation, creating cream of nectar, cream of coconut, and chocolate flavors, among others. Every syrup would be made fresh each day, a tradition that the Hansens’ granddaughter, Ashley, who manages the shop today, has maintained. Over the years, wild new flavors with secret recipes have been added, including Brown Pelican (root beer–based) and a delicious mystery named Cream of Wedding Cake. Hansen’s has also added popular toppings, such as condensed milk, whipped cream, and, most famously, bananas caramelized in brown sugar and vanilla for a Bananas Foster Sno-Bliz.

Proudly celebrating 80 years in business, with that number painted on an outside wall, three generations of Hansens have been cooling off the people of New Orleans from a small, wondrous shack on Tchoupitoulas Street that betrays nothing on the outside of the soft, sugared clouds of icy goodness that await within.

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