Ashley Hansen hefts a box of paper cups out of her 1999 VW Golf and makes space for a week's supply of sugar, chocolate and evaporated milk. Shopping is the hardest part of her day. It's eight in the morning on a hot Thursday in July. Yesterday Mr. Duplantier delivered enough ice to last through Sunday. Today, at one o'clock, Hansen's Sno-Bliz, the best snowball stand in New Orleans, opens for the week.
Hansen's sits on a corner of Tchoupitoulas Street, which winds along the Mississippi River and separates the port from the historically working-class Irish Channel neighborhood. One of the older areas of the city, it's several feet above sea level and escaped flooding when the levees failed after Katrina. Ashley lives next door to the stand in a renovated house that belonged to her great-grandfather. She was 15 when she began working behind the counter at Hansen's with her unwavering smile. Now she's 34, although anyone would guess that she's five years younger. Her grandparents, Mary and Ernest Hansen, opened the snowball stand in 1939. Mary died eight days after the storm at the age of 95. Ernest, a year younger, died six months later. Since then, Ashley has run Hansen's Sno-Bliz on her own.
A snowball is like a snow cone in roughly the same way that foie gras is like chopped liver. The shaved ice, drenched in flavored syrup, is as soft as snow. And the best, fluffiest snowballs are made by Hansen's. Ernest, a machinist, built the first motorized, all stainless steel ice-shaving machine in 1934. He didn't want his son eating snowballs shaved by dirty, sweaty hands. "He always told me that his inspiration were the drills that went through rock for oil rigs," Ashley says. "He wanted something that would go through ice like that." In 1939, when his wife made snowballs her full-time business, he built the machine still used today. In 68 years, the blades have never needed sharpening. Mary knew her ice and syrups— strawberry for the kids and chocolate for the parents—were the best in the town, and she charged two cents when other snowballs cost a penny.
New Orleans agrees that Hansen's Sno-Bliz still beats the rest. In the 2007 Zagat Survey, Hansen't got a 29 out of 30 for food quality. "It's so funny," Ashley says, "we rate up there with the French Laundry and we're just a little cinderblock stand on Tchoupitoulas." When Danny Meyer sought inspiration for the Shake Shack in New York, he visited Hansen's and took to heart its motto that "There is no shortcut to quality." Richard Coraine, chief operating officer for Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, says, "I still have the picture of me standing by their refrigerator with that sign taped to the door. Their small batch method of daily syrups was inspirational for our daily custard calendar as well." Ashley will also tell you that Hansen's makes the best snowball in New Orleans. For her, though, it's a matter of faith.
"I've never had another snowball," she says. "I know how much work we put into it, and I know that they can't be putting the work into it that we do."
Ashley stops first for a case of Hershey's chocolate syrup at Groetsch Wholesale Grocers, which began in 1917 as a corner grocery in New Orleans. Now it's a wholesale operation in Harahan, a suburb just outside the city limits. Next, she heads to Sam's Club in Metairie, another suburb of New Orleans. The snowball stand doesn't have much storage and only opens in the summer, so she can't buy enough products to work with a restaurant supplier. Before the flood, she shopped at a Sam's on the eastern edge of New Orleans. That location was destroyed and never reopened, and there isn't anywhere in the city now where she can buy her supplies. At Sam's, she fills a pallet with boxes of trash sacks, ten 25-pound bags of Domino sugar and eight cases of Carnation evaporated milk.
Back at Hansen's, Ashley unloads her purchases in the back room, a space cluttered with Mardi Gras decorations and old soda signs. It used to be her grandfather's workshop. After Ashley started working full-time at the snowball stand after graduating from the Loyola University in New Orleans and then spending one winter in Chicago, she made ten secret trips to the dump, cleaning out her grandfather's junk and rearranging big items in front of the empty spaces so that he wouldn't notice.
"This is where we keep all our receipts," she says after stuffing today's receipts into an empty Hershey's syrup can. "And this is our cash register," pointing at three fading King Edward cigar boxes labeled 5, 10 and 20 with a magic marker. She checks a calendar above the cash register. "Seven weeks left until the end of snowball season," she says, relieved. Her grandmother used to keep the stand open year round, selling pumpkins, Christmas trees—anything to make money—in the cooler months. As Mary and Ernest got older, though, it became a seasonal business, opening in May and closing around Labor Day.
Ashley climbs onto a milk crate and empties into a vat with a spigot several gallon jugs of Abita Springs Water, which is bottled across the lake from New Orleans. She dumps in a 25-pound bag of sugar. This daily routine hasn't changed for decades, except that Ashley, who works as a personal trainer in the off-season, can lift heavier bags of sugar than her grandmother. Hansen's Sno-Bliz makes its simple syrup, normally one part water to one part sugar, with a little less sugar than water so that its snowballs aren't too sweet.
She grabs a bottle of red syrup from the ancient General Electric refrigerator, pours a dash into her palm and licks it to see if it's strawberry or Sno-Bliz. The Sno-Bliz flavor is, as Ashley says, "something sweet, something tart, kind of like a strawberry Sweet Tart." Mary invented the flavor early on to give her stand something unique. Almost all the clear glass bottles are empty, because Ashley makes the syrups fresh each day. Leftover syrup is frozen in a Dixie cup and sold to kids for fifty cents. The bottles, with their fading, illegible labels in white paint, are old liquor bottles. Ernest's cousin Velma married a drinker. All winter he would empty bottles of booze and save them for the snowball stand in the summer.
With a funnel Ashley pours flavor extracts into each bottle. Some flavors are made from scratch, like Sno-Bliz, orange, coffee, chocolate, lemonade and pineapple. Some were developed by local companies for Hansen's. Others were the best Mary could find from area producers, and she managed to keep a consistent supply as the companies merged or went out of business.
Streams of primary-colored liquid—red, yellow, green—twist down the inside of the bottles and pool an inch deep in the bottom. With each pour, the scent of another flavor fills the room. Peach, almond, spearmint, coconut. Each flavor needs a different amount of extract, but Ashley doesn't have to measure. She's been mixing Hansen's syrups for 12 years.
When Ashley returned to New Orleans and told her grandparents that she wanted to work full-time at the snowball stand, she feared they were on the verge of the closing it for good. "Naively, I thought they would hand over the keys and let me do it," she says. "Instead, they asked, 'When can you come get us?'" She worked with them—Mary greeting customers and Ernest shaving the ice—for nine years. From the beginning, though, Ashley ran the place. She did the shopping. She mixed the syrups. But if a customer asked, she said that Mary still made the syrups.
"People like myths," Ashley says. "Up until the last year people were asking if my grandmother was still making the syrups, and I said yes. She was 95, but people wanted to believe the myth." And Mary would swear that she still did it. "My grandmother always said, 'Don't contradict me in public.'"
At first, after Ashley came back, Mary's dementia made her aggressive. She accused Ashley of stealing her car. She got angry with customers. She hit her husband. And then, a few years before she died, she became calm. "At that point," Ashley says, "she was happy to be taken care of and be loved."
Her grandfather, the inventor and master machinist, never suffered from senility. "His problem," she says, "is that he would make shit up." (Ashley curses more and more as snowball season drags on, but never in front of customers.) If someone graduated from Tulane University, then Ernest graduated from Tulane. If a customer was a World War II history buff, then Ernest, who couldn't enlist because of cataracts and bad knees, would talk about his time overseas on a U- Boat. In 1992 he had an aneurism, and at the hospital he told a German nurse that he knees were still full of shrapnel from when the Nazis shot him down behind enemy lines. The hospital was about to run extra tests before his son set them straight. "Wait until your obituary comes out," Ashley used to tell him, "and people find out that you never did any of this stuff."
"This may sound egotistical," Ashley says, "but I really extended my grandparents' lives for 10 years."
She adds simple syrup to the bottles, and they fill with jewel-colored liquids. For each cream flavor she cracks open a can of evaporated milk with a church key, adds it to the bottle, caps the top with her hand and shakes. One bottle is frothy white, one canary yellow and another eggshell blue. "I used to do all this," she says, "and take care of my grandparents."
The day's syrups are ready, and Ashley goes into the front room to wait for her dad Gerard, who's shaving ice today. He's a judge. His brother is a doctor. Mary and Ernest didn't want their sons to be snowball people.
On the walls a clutter of hand-painted signs explain the many sizes of snowballs, complicated prices—fifty cents more for cream and tart flavors, extra for toppings—and exotic combinations like the Hot Rod, Baby Duper and Senior Atomic. The rest of wall space is covered with fading photos of customers. You once had to buy a bucket, an actual mop bucket full of shaved ice and syrup, to get a photo on the wall. Ashley knows most of the customers by their orders. One man who wears a kilt gets a daily Senior Atomic, a snowball with ice cream in the middle topped with condensed milk, crushed pineapple, marshmallow cream, another scoop of ice cream and a cherry. Another woman trades fresh caught fish for spearmint snowballs. Some regulars are lactose intolerant, so Ashley occasionally makes a batch of chocolate syrup for them with soymilk.
Gerard arrives, but first he must sign a warrant for a cop waiting outside. Policemen get free snowballs at Hansen's, so they prefer to track down the judge here instead of in his chambers. Gerard loads a block of ice into the machine built the same year he was born. Outside, a family idles in their mini-van waiting for the doors to open. Soon, a crowd will be standing on the painted yellow line that directs traffic along the pink concrete floor.
When not counting the days until Hansen’s reopens, Todd A. Price writes about food, music and travel for various New Orleans publications. His monthly food column appears in OffBeat, a magazine of Louisiana music and culture. He recently wrote Night+Day New Orleans, a post-Katrina guide to the city. More of his work can be found at ToddAPrice.com.
Art by Dave Scantland using part of a photo by Jason Perlow.