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]."
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."
She'll be tooling around Berkley this summer offering an urbane take on the street corner classic. Aware of California's distaste for artificial ingredients, Baum has shelved the traditional synthetic Technicolor syrup for flavors she makes from scratch. Her jasmine tea, vanilla bean and strong coffee snowballs are all natural. She even mixes her own marshmallow cream.
It's a bit of an inside joke that she's named her business Skylite, after one of Baltimore's fakest — and most adored — flavors, the one that tastes like raspberry and stains tongues blue for hours.
Though Sandler would consider Baum's $5 snowballs heresy, Californians don't bat an eye.
"People out here, they really want and appreciate and will pay for the homemade stuff," Baum says, adding that when she comes home to visit her folks, she has no problem getting in line for an old-school chocolate with marshmallow at the Tropicool stand on Falls Road.
Last week Snoball Collective waited for snowballs outside Dean's Shaved Ice on Harford Road in Parkville. The threesome, who all grew up in the Baltimore area, and who all are about 30 years old, went for the classics as they talked about their forthcoming zine, which will be available for $4 at local book shops and online.
Sara Tomko chose cherry. For Katie Lambright, it was egg custard. Bruce Blume ordered the ol' skylite.
Richard Weiss, who owns Koldkiss, the Baltimore-based supplier of the syrups that flavor most area snowballs, says that those three flavors — with the addition of strawberry — are his top-sellers. That's been the case for years and years, even though Koldkiss now makes more than 100 flavors.
The Koldkiss website ticks off the modern options like some sort of Willy Wonka-fied experiment in snowballs gone wild. Almond, amaretto, apricot and banana. Blood orange, birch beer, bubble gum and candy apple. Cantaloupe, egg nog, fireball, ice cream, kiwi, mango, nectarine, pink champagne, rum, strawberry cheesecake, tamarind, wedding cake, whiskey sour and wine cooler. If Charlie Sheen stops by Baltimore, there's even tiger's blood (it's an orange flavor).
But to Snoball Collective, snowballs aren't about pink champagne or tiger's blood. They're about memories — a way to scoop the essence of childhood onto a spoon and taste it, fast, before it melts in the sun.
Like for Tomko, who's now a graphic designer living in Hamilton, that taste of cherry ice brings her back to when her mom used to hand her a dollar so she could walk to the neighborhood stand with her dog, O'Malley. If O'Malley was good, she'd spill a little onto the hot sidewalk for him to lap up.
"It's comforting. It's nostalgic," she says. "It's always going to be a part of us."
Snoball Collective's Top Snowball Stands
Friendly Snowballs, 3419 E. Joppa Road, Parkville. They like the ample outdoor seating and the option for an ice-cream/snowball combo.
Walther Gardens, 3501 Southern Ave. They like the history of the place and that the owner will sometimes offer homemade flavors.
Stouten's Shave Ice, 817 Wise Ave. The give the stand props for friendly service, a drive-through window and not skimping on the syrup.
Snoasis, 30 E. Padonia Road, Timonium. Though it's not the cheapest snowball around, the collective says the snowballs are worth it. They also like the selection of diet flavors and the scenic boardwalk-style setting.
Dean's Shaved Ice, 8492 Harford Road, Parkville. They praise the ample pours of syrup, and the charming courtyard that's lit with twinkly holiday lights at night.