Lisa: I can’t believe you’re just going to let your daughter live in a world where this…[waving Malibu Stacey doll]…THIS is their role-model.
Marge: I had a Malibu Stacy doll when I was little and I turned out all right. Now let’s forget our troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream.
[Lisa pulls on Malibu Stacy’s string]
Malibu Stacy Voice: “Now let’s forget our troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream.”
Lisa: That’s it; I’m calling the company.
—The Simpsons, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey” (2/17/94)
Not long ago, I got into a debate with someone over the relative merits, and the similarities/differences among various frozen desserts. Because that’s what you do when you’re a few beers into the evening, you know.
The three desserts in question were Italian ices, snowballs and snow cones. One person insisted that they were all pretty much the same thing. I, however, being the least-impaired of the group, noted that they absolutely are not, although there are similarities. After all, we share a lot of DNA with chimpanzees, but that doesn’t mean I spend my day flinging feces at people (tempting as that oftentimes sounds).
So I offer to you my mini-treatise on these three confections. Let’s start with the snow cone and the snowball, since they have so much in common.
The picture to the left is a snow cone. It’s shaved ice and flavored syrup. That’s pretty simple, right? The ice in snow cones is pretty coarsely chopped up, consequently there’s a strong possibility that the ice could freeze back together, giving you a huge, nearly flavorless lump somewhere in the middle. That sucks. Snow cones come in a variety of flavors, but there isn’t usually a wide variety available. You can probably choose from maybe four or five flavors from your local snow cone dealer. Once the ice is shaved, the vendor will usually pour the syrup out of a bottle onto the ice. The ice, being in rather large chunks, isn’t usually affected much by this.
Snow cones usually come in one size, maybe two. And it’s a little tough to see from this picture, but they’re also served literally in paper cones, hence the name. Snow cones are usually eaten like ice cream cones, without utensils, so you have to squeeze the cup to push the ice & syrup upward in order to eat it. When you’re done, you have a flat triangle of paper because you’ve squoze the whole thing out. Often, when you’re a kid, you’ll invert the cone over your mouth and squeeze the last of the juice into your mouth. Snow cones are, as I said above, a very simple pleasure.
Then there’s the snowball. Snowballs seem to be largely a Baltimore phenomenon, although I’ve seen it suggested that they’re also popular in New Orleans. I’ve never been there, so I couldn’t tell you.
The snowball is also shaved ice and syrup, however there are other differences as well. Snowballs offer a somewhat wider variety of coarseness to the ice; this depends on the stand that you go to. Some places have mechanical shavers that give you the same consistency every time; at other places the ice is manually fed and it’s going to depend upon how much pressure is placed on the ice plunger. For the most part, however, snowballs are a more finely-chopped product.
Once the ice is delivered into the cup, it’s usually heaped way up beyond the rim of the cup. This is because, once the syrup flavoring is applied, the ice usually starts to melt right away under the stream of syrup (which is often pumped out of a gallon-size jug rather than poured out of a fifth-size bottle, but this depends on the popularity of the flavor). Snowballs are also served up in styrofoam cups of different sizes. I’ve seen up to five different sizes of snowballs at some stands. Snowball stands also tend to offer a huge variety of flavors. If you look at the picture to the right, the sign in the right-hand window is the list of flavors. This place has something like fifty different snowball flavors. And, of course, some kids will ask for combinations so that the ice is striped, or dotted, or some such. That can happen with snow cones, but not often.
Because the snowballs are served in styrofoam cups, you can’t squish them out of the container to eat them, so you have to use a spoon. The other reason you need a spoon is that you might have to put a topping on them. This is a huge debate among snowball aficionados—to top or not to top. The two most popular toppings for snowballs are chocolate sauce and marshmallow. Some people also like a blob of marshmallow somewhere in the middle, so it’ll be marshmallow/snowball/marshmallow/snowball as you work your way down. Finally, snowballs are also prone to re-freezing, but at least you have the spoon to keep chopping at it while you eat.
The beauty thing about snowballs is that A) they’re ridiculously cheap—even the biggest ones are maybe three dollars; and B) they’re absolutely everywhere in Baltimore. Remember when you were a kid and you had a lemonade stand? You’ll see snowball shacks all over the place. But besides those, you’ll also see people who have set up a table, an ice shaver and about ten bottles of syrup out in front of their house. (This is usually in the rowhouse neighborhoods; I have to go to a shack for my snowballs unless I’m traveling while at work.)
Finally, we come to the Italian ice. I don’t even know why these are part of the debate because they’re so different from the other two, but what the heck. Italian ices (you’ll also hear the phrase “water ice”, which is just redundant and dumb) are finely shaved ice blended with syrup and/or juice, and sometime
s actual bits of fruit, and then put back into the freezer to ensure that the juice is frozen, too. The ice to the right is hand-scooped into the paper cup and can be eaten much like a snow cone, including the part where you smoosh the cup to get the last of the juice out of it. However, you can also buy Italian ices in individual serving cups in the supermarket. Try that with a snowball. These have a couple of cultural issues that don’t come with the hand-scooped type of ice. First, if you bought it off an ice cream truck (common when I was a kid), they usually gave you a wooden spoon to eat it with. And because it was frozen a little harder than the scooped stuff, you had to take this spoon and essentially scrape up the Italian ice in order to get enough to eat. So someone listening to you eat an Italian ice, at least at first, would hear scrape, scrape, scrapescrapescrapescrapescrape, scrape, slurp. Repeatedly. I’m sure it’d make you crazy if you weren’t the one eating it. As the whole thing softened, you’d start to break it up with the spoon and start eating it in chunks. But the best part—THE best part—of eating Italian ice came when you got about halfway down.
Let me digress for a minute. When they make a cup of, say, Marino’s Italian Ice, they’d blend the ice and flavoring at the factory, then they’d put it in the cups and then they’d freeze it. Then someone takes it out of the freezer and puts it on a refrigerated truck for delivery to a wholesaler. Then it comes out of the truck and goes into a cold storage at the wholesaler. Then it goes onto another truck and gets delivered to a store, or your friendly neighborhood ice-cream man. This means that there are numerous opportunities for the Italian ice to melt just a teeny bit each time. And every time it melts, the melt would settle to the bottom of the cup and re-freeze when it went back into the cold storage. So, more often than not—especially when I was younger and getting this stuff from the ice cream trucks—every cup of Italian ice has about a quarter-inch layer of ice crystals infused with the flavoring.
So we all knew about the change in texture and more intense flavor at the bottom of the cup, although at the time we didn’t know why, of course. But that meant that when we got about halfway down the cup, the whole thing had softened just enough that we could get the spoon underneath what remained and flip the whole thing over. Now we’re chopping into the ice crystals and eating them along with the Italian ice. It’s like two treats in one cup!
So once again, I’ve gotten you to waste several minutes thinking about some of those stupid little things that bring so much pleasure to our lives. Hope you enjoyed the ride and I rather look forward to comments on this one, since everyone’s got some insights into these desserts.