Snowball Collective

The Snowball Collective is a threesome that is studying the "snoball," and just came out with a Snoball Guide. They are shown (l-r) Katie Lambright, Bruce Blume and Sara Tomko at one of their favorite snoball stands, Dean's on Harford Road. (May 31, 2011)

Nearly 3,000 miles from the red-bricked neighborhoods on the banks of the Patapsco, a Baltimore native is on a sugary mission to introduce Californians to the joy that is a little cup of flavored ice on a hot summer day.

She's a one-woman Baltimore snowball outreach campaign.

"I felt that the West Coast was missing out," says Katie Baum, a Maryland transplant in the Bay Area who a few months ago launched Skylite Snowballs, a mobile dispensary where she sells an upscale version of the treats with a free topping of Baltimore nostalgia. "Everything is so good out here, but we didn't have snowballs. And when I think of summertime in Baltimore, it's what I think of."

And right here in town, three young people who call themselves the Snoball Collective have self-published SnoBaltimore, a zine dedicated to the snowball that's part buying guide, part cultural homage.

Altogether, it's quite the star turn for the otherwise humble treat, one that has spent the better part of the past century winning hometown hearts but steering clear of any sort of gourmet or hipster imprimatur.

Baltimore's summertime baby has come a long way.

An authentic city snowball, not to be confused with an Italian ice, a Hawaiian ice or — God forbid — a snow cone, is an exercise in culinary simplicity. A cup of ice shaved just so. A splash of brightly colored syrup. A spoon.

Someone feeling fancy could top if off with marshmallow fluff.

No one has been able to explain — at least not with any authority — exactly when the snowball came to be or why it took such hold in Baltimore. They're virtually unheard of in any other city with the exception of New Orleans, where some have also staked a claim to them.

Here, they're usually advertised as "snoballs," minus the expected "w." The reason for that, too, is a mystery.

In 1977, a Baltimore Sun journalist attempted to trace the origin of the local snowball. He didn't get far. "Why Baltimore?" the reporter wrote. "No one seems to know exactly. … Maybe Baltimore's hot, humid weather had something to do with [it]."

Maybe.

We do know that way back in the Roman emperor Nero's day, when he was feeling particularly overheated — and particularly imperious — he sent slaves into the mountains to fetch snow, which he would have mixed with fruit and honey. We also know that by the time of America's Great Depression, snowballs were pervasive in Baltimore, sold for a penny and known as "the hard time sundae."

In fact, in 1932 when proliferating neighborhood snowball stands began to attract complaints, Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson refused to rein them in. Instead he dryly told reporters, "Some of us may be down to eating snowballs soon. And I don't want to put any limitations on the trade."

Baltimore historian Gilbert Sandler remembers setting up a slapdash snowball station in front of his lower Park Heights home with his older brother, Irving. They'd get ice from the ice truck and shave it by hand. For two or three cents apiece, their customers could choose between chocolate, vanilla and root beer syrups.

Sandler has no idea how many other kids, how many other homespun entrepreneurs, were doing the same thing all over town. Hundreds, probably. It seemed like every neighborhood had at least a few.

If there were any profits, Sandler says with a laugh, Irving must have pocketed them. He worked for the glory of it. Or perhaps for a complimentary chocolate snowball which, to this day, he considers the quintessential taste of summer.

When he's feeling dreamy, Sandler wishes he could find a stand in the city making snowballs with an old-fashioned hand-shaver. Or that he could find a shaver at a yard sale so he could try his hand at snowball craft one more time. "Oh, what I would give," he says.

Baum's snowballs are what Sandler would call "uptown."