Ode to the Sno-ball

July 10, 1993

Seems there's less that folks in the Free State can trust these days. The crabcake in your sandwich? Could be from India. The beloved home team might be controlled by out-of-town investors -- again. Even those credit cards with the "Orioles" name on them? Just sold to a Delaware bank.

But there's one thing, come summer, on which a Marylander can always count: the sno-ball. Has there ever been a creation so simple, yet so versatile and so effective? On a sultry Baltimore summer's eve, can anything beat the heat as cheaply as that cup of shaved ice, stained cloyingly sweet with flavored syrup and topped, if it suits, with ice cream or marshmallow sauce?

The frozen confection has been around here almost 100 years. It sold for a penny during the Depression. The "hard-times sundae," wags dubbed it. "Don't want to put any limitations on the trade," then-Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson explained to a populace that was getting antsy about the proliferation of sidewalk stands. "Some of us may be down to eating sno-balls soon."

The repast really took off in '34, when a candy and tobacco wholesaler named Dave Davison got hold of an ice-shaving machine that a Texan invented to make frozen cocktails. Davison pitched the sno-ball idea to pharmacies with refreshment counters, convincing buyers that what they'd spend on the equipment they'd save in doctor bills from hammering ice hunks all day.

You could get them then in cherry, vanilla and sarsaparilla. You can't find sarsaparilla these days, but you can find more flavors than you could eat in a month: egg custard, skylite (it's blue) and every berry ever found in Eden. Sno-balls even track fads of the moment; combinations dubbed the "Orphan Annie" and "Victory" were top sellers a half-century ago, the "Ninja Turtles" are hot today.

They're as much a part of summers here as listening to the O's on the radio, mining the feathery meat from a steamed hard-shell crab, or sitting on the coastal boardwalk and marveling at a humankind as multiform as, well, sno-ball types. A hundred years from now, the shoreline will have shifted at Ocean City and who knows what bounty will remain in the bay. But we'll probably be savoring sno-balls, still made with water from the Patapsco drainage basin.

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