Thursday, February 17, 2011


Mother Nature's Cupboard, $3

Back when I was still a pre-schooler, Kentucky experienced a couple of really tough winters. I'm sure it was a terrible and challenging time for most adults, but I remember it fondly: I loved the rapier-long icicles hanging from the eaves, the sledding marathons, and especially a homemade treat that my mother called "snow cream." She and I would bundle up and venture out onto the porch to heap a mixing bowl high with all the fresh snow it would hold. Once back in the kitchen, we would stir it together with milk, sugar, and vanilla extract, then race to eat the sweet slush before it melted.

It turns out that my mother wasn't the first to think along these lines. Back in ancient times, people living in Sicily used to bring snow down from Mt. Etna, store it in caves and crevasses until summer arrived, then enjoy it drizzled with wine or flavored syrups. Later generations of Sicilians would master the arts of gelato, sorbet, and granita, and spread their specialties around the world--and one Sicilian-American would re-introduce us to the delights of eating snow.

In 1936, a New Orleans grocer of Sicilian descent named George J. Ortolano designed and built a machine that transformed blocks of ice into edible snow--and not rough, crunchy crystals, but soft, fluffy powder. With wife Josie cooking up creatively flavored creams and syrups, Ortolano began selling the refreshing concoctions at his grocery store. Word soon spread, and Ortolano was deluged with requests for the snow-making machine. His industrial model, the Snow-Wizard, spread across the South and became a staple of summertime snack stands.

I arrived in New Orleans hungry for a sno-ball and totally ignorant of how hard it would be to find one. I came prepared with the names of two popular stands, Hansen's Sno-Blitz and Plum Street Sno-balls, both of which have been around since the the 1940's. I called ahead to check hours and got endless ringing at one and a "closed for the season" recording at the other. Sno-ball season, it turns out, runs from March through October. February is not even on the calendar--however hot and sunny it may be. Nevertheless, I kept my hopes up and my eyes peeled; it seemed like I couldn't go three blocks without being taunted by shuttered sno-ball shacks and their tattered lists of unimaginably intriguing flavors: Orchid Cream, Nectar, Tiger's Blood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle...

Just when I was starting to think I had a snowball's chance of finding an open sno-ball stand, I spotted Mother Nature's Cupboard in the French Quarter's French Market. Although Mother Nature's is primarily a farm stand, they augment their produce sales with tourist-friendly snacks and drinks, and the proprietor was more than happy to make me my first-ever sno-ball.

He took an enormous ice block from the freezer and placed it in the belly of the squat, blocky "Southern Snow" machine (a Snow-Wizard competitor), which started to chug when he flipped the switch. The shavings sprayed out a chute in the side, and to demonstrate what separates a sno-ball from a crushed ice "snow" cone, he tossed a handful into to the air, where the glittering snow cloud hung briefly before the flakes drifted to the ground: "You can say you saw it snowing in the French Market!" After filling the cup with snow, he packed it down and poured on a swig of my chosen syrup, almond-based "Wedding Cake" (below, right). He repeated the layering process until the cup would hold no more, ensuring the the last bite would be as soft and sweet as the first. A swirl of condensed milk was the finishing touch.

Not every treat I spend days searching for lives up to the anticipation, but the sno-ball was even better than I had hoped, even better that the snow cream of my memories.

Mother Nature's Cupboard
1008 N Peters St
French Market Farmer's Market
New Orleans, LA

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