Snow patrol: diving into New Orleans snowballs
Chatting – and eating – with the author of a guide to snowball standsBy Helen Freund
It's a muggy spring afternoon in early March, and the temperature gauge on my dashboard is inching toward 90 degrees. Even with the windows rolled down, the broken air conditioner in my rickety Subaru seems to be quietly laughing at me, while the sweat trickling down my forehead is a palpable reminder that a New Orleans summer is near.
Thankfully, I'm not far from my destination, a multicolored raised shack on St. Bernard Avenue in Gentilly, a place that beckons with the promise of a syrupy sweet and icy cold refuge: the New Orleans snowball. I'm here to meet local author, mother, student, social media provocateur (and former Gambit writer) Megan Braden-Perry, who's added a new moniker to her list: snowball expert.
Braden-Perry signs her emails with snowball emojis. She shopped the city's jewelry boutiques until she found the perfect pair of snowball earrings and a snowball necklace to match. She believes snowballs make for better tokens of affection than birthday cards, and she'd rather get a snowball than first-date flowers. Over the past couple of years, Braden-Perry combed the city for variations on the frosty New Orleans treat, eating at more than 50 snowball stands along the way. Her new book, Crescent City Snow: The Ultimate Guide to New Orleans Snowball Stands, was published this month from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.
Hawaii has its shaved ice. In Philadelphia there's multi-hued "water ice" and everywhere else, it seems, has snow cones. But the snowball, whether stuffed with ice cream or drenched in condensed milk, is a uniquely New Orleans phenomenon. And — like Carnival king cakes, springtime crawfish boils and trips to Casamento's when oysters are at their peak — snowballs are a seasonal tradition.
Though she grew up in the 7th Ward, Braden-Perry spent a lot of her childhood in New Orleans East, and her snowball memories are from spots all over the city. Her all-time favorite is the Melipone Mexican vanilla snowball from Magazine Street's SnoWizard Snoball Shoppe, which she says has a "creamy and divine" kick, but she loves trying out other flavors when she can.
One of her earliest memories involves an afternoon at the snowball stand outside Brother Martin High School, when her older cousin took her to get a cotton candy snowball, and her first thought was that it tasted like a drink her uncle liked — a drink that happened to involve a lot of Jack Daniel's.
"I just remember thinking, it tastes just like his drink, even though I had no idea what that was. It really did taste like Jack," she says with a laugh.
Now her palate has matured a bit and she enjoys what she calls "grown-up" flavors, such as pralines and cream, nectar cream and sour apple. "I think that's how we all started," Braden-Perry says, "with bubble gum and cotton candy [flavors]. But as people get older, that changes."
Though most New Orleanians have at least visited Hansen's Sno-Bliz, Pandora's Snowballs or Plum Street Snoballs, Braden-Perry's book points to the wealth of far-flung and off-the-beaten-path snowball stands. While working on the book, Braden-Perry discovered a plethora of wild cards. At Scuba Steve's in Marrero, a lime green pickle snowball arrived speared with a giant dill pickle. At Abracadabra Snowballs in Westwego, slices of red velvet or cherry cheesecake topped some of the most decadent snowballs.
It's not just about the snowballs, though. Her love for the brightly colored shaved ice extends to whatever other snacks might be found at a stand. That could mean anything from jalapeno-topped nachos, dripping with Velveeta cheese and chili at Rodney's Snowball Stand in New Orleans East to the yakamein (called yet-ca-mein) and fish platters at Red Rooster in Central City to the fresh oysters at the newly opened L&G Snowballs & Oysters stand on St. Bernard Avenue and Frey Place.
This is where we're meeting, a dollhouse-sized stand in the shadow of the I-610 highway overpass, in the middle of an auto repair and tire shop parking lot off St. Bernard Avenue. It's a place where one can just as easily grab a fried oyster po-boy as a blackberry snowball dripping with blood-red syrup. Braden-Perry picks the blackberry, a deep burgundy treat, and I order a coconut, sweet and light, with a sugary Almond Joy aftertaste.
After that, we head out to New Orleans East to Rodney's, a place Braden-Perry remembers visiting frequently as a child. Many of her family members and friends lived nearby, and she recalls fondly the trips her family would take to the little white and blue stand on Lake Forest Boulevard.
One of the oldest snowball stands in the area, Rodney's opened in the 1980s and sells a wide selection of both sweet and savory options, from ice cream-stuffed snowballs and sundaes to floats and malts, tamales and chili cheese-topped hot dogs. For Braden-Perry, it's all about the nachos: Like a movie theater version, the ones here are served piled high with dark red chili gravy, a tiny mountain of jalapenos and a blanket of melted American cheese. To balance the heft, Braden-Perry orders a bright green sour apple snowball while I succumb to the butterscotch cream, a golden treat that tastes like an icy version of the popular hard candy.
The ice at Rodney's is fluffy and soft, and Braden-Perry considers it one of the city's best. When perfected, the snowball's consistency is a lighter-than-air shave that tastes, quite literally, like fresh snow.
"It's got to be really, really soft," Braden-Perry says. "And moldable, so when it forms you can see peaks and ridges, almost as you would with whipped cream."
Last on our list is River Breez Sno Balls in Meraux, so we head out to St. Bernard Parish, getting lost a couple of times along the way. If not for the giant neon snowball on the side of the road, one could easily miss the nondescript tan building on St. Bernard Highway. Debbie Tassin opened River Breez four years ago, selling a mix of original syrup flavors and over-the-top combinations.
"I won't tell anyone what I put in my flavors," Tassin says with a smile. "It's my secret recipe."
The Hello Kitty looks exactly as it sounds: hot pink cotton candy ice with toasted marshmallow, stuffed with whipped cream and decorated with sprinkles and multicolored gummy bears. A berry Chantilly cake version includes wedding cake-flavored ice stuffed with vanilla ice cream and topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and whipped cream. Irish mint — a seasonal flavor — comes stuffed with mint chocolate chip ice cream, drenched in a deep emerald mint syrup topped with whipped cream, chocolate nibs and sprinkles.
While we chat with Tassin, she brings her small dog to the sliding glass window, and her grandson stops in briefly to say hi. She proudly pulls up photos of her daughter's recent trip to Iceland on her phone, and the three of us stand there chatting lazily, slurping on our icy sugar bombs until the sun starts to slip behind the clouds and a cool dusk breeze settles in. Braden-Perry signs a copy of her book for Tassin, and they reminisce about the last time they saw each other.
"This is what I love most about snowballs," Braden-Perry says. "It's been a long time since I've been here, but it's like nothing's changed. It's just something that helps us connect, and something that brings everyone together."