Out-of-towners might think a snowball is nothing special. Just some syrup on shaved ice. You have one, you’ve had ’em all.
Baltimoreans say differently. Likes sports fans, they count the days until snowball season, late spring to early fall. They harbor deep loyalties to their favorite spots, sure that theirs nails the syrup to ice ratio, or offers the best version of egg custard.
“They’re not snowcones. It’s not shaved ice. It’s not Italian ice, definitely not,” said T.J. Smith, a Baltimore County spokesman who took time from his busy schedule to discuss the topic. “It’s a specific thing. It has to be made right. It has to have the right amount of juice.”
Quality Snowballs in Hampden serving up a Baltimore classic.
Almost everyone insists on loading it up with a glob of marshmallow cream that drips over the sides of its styrofoam cup, leaving one’s fingers impossibly tacky.
“I am well aware that if I show up to the office without marshmallow: Big trouble,” said Nancy Beth Barr, a doctor at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. She keeps her Koldkiss snowball machine in hospital’s break room during the summer months. “These guys work like dogs,” she said of her coworkers, and the machine has improved morale in the office “3000 percent.”
She spoke as she picked up the machine — which was getting a new switch — from the Koldkiss factory in downtown Baltimore. The Baltimore company sells more than 100 varieties of flavors, named after everything from Lexington Market to rapper 50 Cent.
In ancient Japan, royals ate kakigori, sweetened shaved ice, still a popular treat. In the 1900s, “shave ice” found its way to Hawaii, where it’s often eaten with condensed milk. New Orleanians devour their snowballs.
Records of snowballs in this city date back at least to June of 1911, according to The Baltimore Sun archives. In 1922, The Sun reported with some hand-wringing that tenement children were eating snowballs as temporary respite against the 95 degree summer heat, since milk was spoiling.
Started sometime in the 1920s, Walther Gardens may be the oldest documented snowball stand in the area, according to Eric Holcomb, the executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. Conversely, Hampden’s Quality Snowballs, which opened this year, may be the newest. The specialty stand from chef Chad Gauss offers gourmet flavors like s’mores with torched marshmallow.
And Baltimore snowballs have become an export, too. Californians in search of a sample can stop by the Baltimore Snowball cafe, open year-round in Escondido.
From old stands to new stands to snowball stands on wheels, here are 10 local spots worth a visit:
There’s people who like snowballs, and then there’s Gerald Greene. A few years ago the Navy veteran and snowball superfan tasted the best snowball he’d ever eaten. “Lady, what’s your name?” he asked the woman who made it. Today, they’re married. During the summer months, find the couple behind the counter at Val’s Snowballs in Upton. They sell 62 flavors — all made by Val — with the most popular being egg custard and Georgia peach.
Parking lot of Chopper’s Tavern, 1531 Pennsylvania Ave.
A retro red, white and blue awning announces this popular snowball destination in Glen Burnie, which sells three versions of egg custard, depending on diner preferences: normal, “old fashioned,” made with cream, and another without sugar. Longtime customer Dan Hagan said the stand gets the ever-important ice-to-syrup just right. “Anywhere else they either give you too much flavor or not enough ice,” he said.
7193 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd, Glen Burnie.
Sugar Shack Snowball Stand
Housed inside a former schoolbus painted bright blue with a red door, the mobile Sugar Shack Snowball Stand can be rented out for special events. At other times, it’s parked near the intersection of 29th St. and Greenmount Ave. Larhona Murray stopped by there after work on a recent afternoon with her children. “They come here every summer,” Murray said of the stand, while daughters Story, 8, and Ari, 6, gleefully dove spoons into blue snowballs topped with gummy worms.
When Paula Wittek’s brother asked her to help him run a snowball stand in Baltimore, the Buffalo native had a few questions for him. The first: “What is a snowball?” Since moving here five years ago, Wittek has learned to appreciate the virtues of the dessert, which she has handed out to countless customers at Walther Gardens in northeast Baltimore. The nursery, for decades owned and operated by the Sinsz family, sells Christmas trees in the winter and snowballs in the summertime.
“It is a social thing. It is a thing that ties people together, no matter the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status,” Wittek said.
During a recent visit, children exuding the joy of the newly-on-summer-vacation fidgeted with anticipation as they waited to receive their snowballs. It’s a scene that could have happened around 100 years ago. Wittek proffers a photo of the northeast Baltimore stand in horse-and-buggy days, depicting matriarch “Meemaw” Sinsz, one of the earlier owners.
At Quality Snowballs, which opened in May, customers can order specialty flavor combinations like watermelon, basil and lime, topped with chunks of real watermelon and marshmallow cream. On warm evenings, the stand, a repurposed shipping container painted with whimsical colors, attracts long lines along the Avenue and prolific Instagram posts.
Owner Chad Gauss, who also runs the Food Market and La Food Marketa, said the stand was a dream of his since he was a teenager in Parkville.
“People enjoy the simplicity,” Gauss said. “It’s a Baltimore pastime.”
Customers have been known to come from as far as Bethesda for the snowballs at Stouten’s Marina, a family-fun institution in Dundalk that offers specialty flavors like Reese’s in addition to classic. Diners can order from a drive-through or linger at picnic benches along the water — don’t mind the ducks.
The Parkville stand offers 71 classics as well as 78 “deluxe” flavors made with homemade cream, its recipe known only to the stand’s founder.
“It takes a long time to memorize these recipes,” says employee Daniella Koerner. Her in-laws, the eponymous Elizabeth and Zyggie, started the stand in Dundalk in 1995. Today, long lines stretch to the parking lot on busy evenings at the newer stand in Parkville. The most popular flavor, Koerner says, is the Reese’s peanut butter cup, layered with candy.
2500 Putty Hill Ave., Parkville.
Opie’s Soft Serve and Snowballs
“A little taste of Mayberry,” says the sign at Opie’s Soft Serve and Snowballs in Catonsville, where customers can snack while sitting on porch swings and picnic benches. In addition to the classics, the stand sells protein shakes and diet versions of flavors like cherry and egg custard.
1603 Edmondson Ave., Catonsville, opies.net.
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The bright orange stand with blue shutters offers the best egg custard around, according to 7-year-old Madison Watson of Reisterstown, who visited one recent afternoon with 5-year-old sister, Maygan, and mom, Myeskia. “It doesn’t really taste like orange,” Watson said.
2339 W Joppa Road, Lutherville. 410-296-4104. summershack.business.site
The Snowball Stand
An area fixture for nearly 50 years, the Snowball Stand attracts customers from all over the state with more than 100 homemade flavors like kiwi and lemon merengue. Specialty snowballs come with toppings like Butterfingers and birthday cake. They could sell several hundred snowballs on a weekend night, but staff work hard to keep the lines moving, said owner Miki Hill. “I think we have some of the greatest teenagers in Howard County” working at the stand, she said.