On my street, it’s impossible to miss the Puerto Rican vendors yelling “piroguas!”, trailed by a gaggle of children, fists full of quarters. At another intersection, a Mexican vendor calls out “Respados!” Each of these men are selling their country’s version of the snow cone, a treat that goes by many names but is universally craved when the mercury rises.
Snow cones are almost always popular in areas with hot summers and abundant fruit. Some say that Latin American countries are the clear winners when it comes to creating the best shaved ice; the tropical climate, mixed with their flavorful fruit recipes, make for one tasty raspado. ”I’ve seen them in Cuba, I’ve seen them in Uzbekistan, I’ve seen them in Korea,” said Nathalie Jordi, owner of People’s Pops in New York City. “It’s the simplest possible summer dessert.”
Writer Michelle Gienow grew curious about the local history of iced treats in Baltimore, where they are called snowballs. A snowball is different from the snow cone, which uses crunchier, crushed ice. “Sorry, but any frozen concoction that can be sipped through a straw is not a true snowball, ” writes Gienow. “And don’t even talk to me about Italian ices or slush cups.” At the end of the 19th century, when commercial ice trucks began making deliveries to homes, the driver would sometimes give bits of ice to children who chased the truck asking for a “shave.” It wasn’t long before someone got the idea to add flavoring to the ice. “The original flavor was egg custard, because it was so simple to make, just vanilla, sugar, and eggs,” according to historian Dan Gibbs.
Snowballs were served in theaters and corner stores around the turn of the century, and locals still recall buying the treats back in the 1920s. “The two-cents [snowball] 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,” explains Grace Phillips, a Baltimore native. ”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.”
The Baltimore snowball was often topped with marshmallow, something that would cause many snow cone enthusiasts to sneer. In my neck of the woods, you wouldn’t be caught dead with anything other than a New Orleans-style snowball, which features ice shaved so velvety thin, it melts like new-fallen snow. In Hawaii, shaved ice is served with a scoop of ice cream, or perhaps drizzled in sweetened condensed milk.
Do you have a favorite icy treat?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.