There's no business like snow business. [Photos: Jess Mayhugh]

Every single day, there is a woman who goes to Snoasis—a roadside snowball stand in Baltimore County—and orders a jumbo-sized snowball, eats the entire thing, and then orders another. "Without fail," one of the teenage girls behind the counter told me. "But she switches it up with the flavors depending on her mood."

In Baltimore, we take our snowballs seriously.

You may think you know what a snowball is. That conical treat of chunky ice where all of the flavor drips out of the bottom of a paper triangle? Nope, that's a snowcone. That fruity, pureed ice that you have to scrape with a wooden spoon? Nope, that's Italian ice. Or maybe the fluffy bowl of ice with condensed milk on top? Wrong again—that's Hawaiian shave ice.

The closest thing to a Baltimore snowball can be found in New Orleans. But in the Big Easy rendition, the ice is shaved more finely, for a consistency that's delicate and light but easily turns soupy.

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A classic Baltimore snowball arrives in a Styrofoam cup: shaved ice sloshed with sweet syrup—mostly artificial flavoring and not any of that "real fruit" stuff—and typically topped with marshmallow cream. While the ice is shaved, it's not fine enough to dissolve, leaving the snowball chunky and intact enough to survive humid Baltimore summers. Most of us from Charm City would say that these treats are as imperative to a complete summer as cracking through a bushel of steamed crabs.

A modern-day egg custard snowball.

The snowball's roots can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-1800s, ice houses shipped wagons with huge blocks of ice from New York to the South and, when they passed through Baltimore, kids would beg for some ice shavings on humid summer days.

Soon, moms in town began to make flavorings to sweeten the ice. The most common was a simple golden-hued egg custard—made with eggs, vanilla, and sugar—and that's still the most popular flavor to this day, now mimicked with a vanilla-laced syrup. Melted marshmallow, which is sticky but pourable, became a common topping, adding a dollop of sweetness and a creamy texture to the snowball.

The Great Depression only heightened the snowball's popularity because the treat was cheap to make and cheap to buy (today, most will still cost you under $1). In 1932, the stands were so numerous that people complained there were too many in their neighborhoods. Baltimore's mayor at the time, Harold W. Jackson, defended the purveyors, saying, "Some of us may be down to eating snowballs soon, and I don't want to put any limitations on the trade."

Ask anyone around town they'll argue about the best flavors to order and the pros and cons of marshmallow topping. Staple flavorings include the aforementioned egg custard, raspberry-inspired Skylite (which some just order as "blue"), the deep red tutti-frutti, and a classic cherry with chocolate sauce on top. There are dozens of other options, too: everything from Margarita to Bananas Foster.

Most of the syrups and ice machines are sold by the locally owned supply house Koldkiss, which has been in the game for more than 40 years. (The company's brewmaster is even credited with the invention of Skylite's secret recipe.) However, some stands still make their own flavorings from scratch.

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Making the snowball is pretty simple: An ice machine churns out the shaved ice, which can they be shaped into a cone, a dome, or just flattened down. Flavoring is poured on top and then a topping of your choosing is ladled on. (Pro Tip: Ask them to include some marshmallow in the middle, too, for maximum effect.)

Where To Get A Snowball

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Now that you've heard all about the cold treat, it's time to go out and try one. Snowball stands come in many forms—some just roadside shacks and others that are operated out of somebody's narrow rowhome.

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A lemon-lime snowball at Icy Delights

The most exceptional snowball we've sampled comes from Icy Delights, a mini-chain with locations in Rosedale, Dundalk, and Highlandtown. The ice is finely shaved and soft allowing the bold flavors to blend seamlessly with the ice, and the flavor doesn't drain out. Order the vibrantly green lemon-lime: it's perfectly citrusy and tart. Since Icy Delights doubles as an ice cream shop, you can get ice cream toppings like caramel on your sour apple snowball. Here, they'll add marshmallow in the middle of your snowball even without a request.

Snoasis in Timonium also excels in the snowball texture department: the ice is shaved just right between coarse and fine, and is served in a crater-like shape that allows for a silky pool of marshmallow topping. Their egg custard flavor is rich and sweet, with a flavor profile similar to creme brulee. Snoasis, like many local stands, gets its concentrated flavors from Koldkiss, but the owners mix and match the syrups to create custom flavors—more than 80 in all.

Summer Shack in Lutherville serves chunkier ice, forcing you to chop at it with a plastic spoon, but the snowball holds a solid texture the entire time you eat it. The flavors are bold (the sour cherry is extra tart), leaving a distinct coloring on your tongue.

In business for more than 20 years, One Sweet Moment is located in a rowhouse in the Hamilton neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. Their ice is finely shaved, almost velvety, and they offer a lot of kid-friendly flavors like Batman (a refreshing combination of the tart blue-raspberry flavors of Skylite and candied sweetness of the grape).

Just down the road, you'll find Walther Gardens, which offers a nursery with hoop houses and beautiful sunflowers in bloom behind the snowball stand. The stand boasts all homemade flavors and a killer bittersweet chocolate-marshmallow topping. Try it on top of a spearmint snowball and the result is like a York Peppermint Pattie: the perfect mix of cool mint and rich chocolate.

Want a waterfront view with your snowball? Stouten's Snowball Stop is located in a marina in Dundalk (a bit east of the city). They also offer a drive-thru option to satisfy cravings on the go. Stouten's uses plenty of syrup for bold flavoring (like a puckering sour cherry), shapes its snowballs into cones, and blankets the entire top with marshmallow cream.

Want to try a Baltimore snowball outside its home base? Baltimore natives ply their hometown summer dessert as far as Skylite Snowballs in San Francisco and Baltimore Snowball Factory in Sarasota, Florida.

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