Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | According to the Roman calendar, summer begins in June. Try to tell that to a native of subtropical New Orleans. When it comes to marking the seasons down here, calendars don't count for much. Instead, locals with a sweet tooth will tell you that summer arrives on the Saturday after Easter, when Hansen's Sno Bliz throws open its screen door and serves the first customer on a five-month annual run.
New Orleans is a chockablock with snowball stands, jerry-rigged roadside hus that dispense cones of shaved ice drenched in a saccharine torrent of syrup. But Hansen's–set in a cinder-block rectangle on Tchoupitoulas Street in the city's Uptown neighborhood–is different. The late Ernest and Mary Hansen were the couple who defined that difference, the husband and wife team responsible for making good on the placard behind the counter, the one that reads, "Air-Condition Your Tummy With a Hansen's Snow Bliz."
In 1934 Ernest decided to build a better snowball. At the time, untold vendors worked the streets of the city, rasping ice from oversized Eskimo blocks with the same sort of wood plane your dad might have used to shave down the kitchen door when it stuck. "That never seemed clean to me," he told me. "They always seemed like they got a little dirt in there. I thought I could do it better. Figured I could build a machine to shave the ice." He succeeded. And he earned U.S. Patent 2525923.
Mary developed her own syrups and sold snowballs from a rickety stand in her mother's front yard. She set her price at two cents, when the going rate was a penny. "But we always gave good value," she said. "We always give three squirts of syrup, one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost."
Over the years, Hansen's acquired a mystique, an ethic worthy of its status as beloved neighborhood institution. Time and flights of fancy begat a lexicon of confections. What will it be? A baby duper, a duper, or a super-duper size? And then there are the variants on the snowball theme—like the hot dog, a spumoni-like snowball and fruit combo, and the oversized tubs of shaved ice sold to the local frat houses, just ready to be doused with a jolt of Golden Grain.
For the most part, though, the Hansens have kept it simple. Miss Mary and Mr. Ernest have since passed, but their granddaughter, the beatific Ashley Hansen, still peddles shaved, syrup-stoked ice by the cup and bucket to any and all for five precious months.
HANSEN'S SNO BLIZ
Address: 4801 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans LA 70115 (map)