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The snowball, a summertime staple, spans generations in Catonsville

Chloe Corbitt of Opie's Soft Serve & Snowballs shows how to make a snowball at the Catonsville snowball stand.

When the Viccari family from Roswell, Ga., came to Maryland for a lacrosse tournament, their hosts said they had to try a snowball.

Looking for a way to cool down, they ended up at Opie's Soft Serve and Snowballs in Catonsville.

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They were hooked. Frank Viccari and his two children, 16-year-old Jacob and 14-year-old Sydney, stopped by nightly and left with T-shirts to commemorate their trip.

They were used to snow cones in Georgia. Jacob was hesitant to get a cherry and marshmallow snowball. He had never had a topping on his snow cone.

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He was pleasantly surprised.

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"It was different, but it was kind of what made it so good," he said. "There's really nothing like it."

The snowball is a Baltimore-area tradition that dates to the late 1800s, according to Kathy McLane, an owner of Tastee Zone in Catonsville, as well as the Kavern syrup company, the Atlantic Manufacturing Co. — known as ATCO on the bottle — flavor house and Charm City Ice in Canton.

Back then, train operators from the north who were delivering ice to Florida would stop in Baltimore and chip off ice to give to children for treats, she said. Mothers would make an egg custard at home for a topping.

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By the 1930s, hand ice shavers were used to make snowballs, and by the 1940s, electric ice shavers were common, she said.

Snowball spots remain a summertime staple.

In Baltimore County, there are 40 registered Sno-Ball stands this season, according to the county's Department of Health and Human Services. But that figure doesn't include businesses classified as ice cream shops, such as Ice Cream Cottage in Arbutus, which also serves the snowball.

And the snowball has found a following on the Internet, where writers debate the virtues of, and differences between, snowballs, snow cones, shave ice and Italian ice. The sno-ball is a New Orleans tradition. In Hawaii, you find shave ice. Elsewhere in the country, you grab a snow cone.

But in suburban Baltimore, it's snowball central.

"It's just been a Baltimore thing forever," said John Corbitt, owner of Opie's, who runs the shop with his wife, Jodi and daughters, Sydney and Chloe.

Opie's started in the summer of 1984. Tastee Zone, a few hundred feet up Edmondson Avenue, opened in 1992. In Arbutus, Ice Cream Cottage has been serving patrons for about 20 years, according to Jane Hughes, a longtime employee.

The Baltimore weather — a mix of heat, humidity and haze — is something that helps snowballs' popularity, according to Christian Wheeler, a manager at Tastee Zone.

"Nothing cools you down quite like a snowball," he said.

Hughes said as the weather gets hotter, patrons are more inclined to get a snowball, rather than ice cream, as it's lighter on the stomach.

The concensus of popular flavors includes egg custard, followed by cherry and skylite, a flavor that even shop operators have a tough time defining.

"You can't even describe it. It's like a sweet blue," said Sydney Corbitt at Opie's. "It's like a blue raspberry kind of thing."

"It's a really hard flavor to describe," added Wheeler. "It's a mixture of half blue raspberry and some other things."

McLane said the skylite flavor was developed by ATCO in the 1930s in Baltimore. As far as the contents, she said it's a trade secret.

"We can tell you that it's like a blue freeze pop," she said. "But we can't tell you what's in it."

Pop culture has helped define flavors, as well.

At Ice Cream Cottage, Spongebob — described by employee Adam Roth as a tart lemon — has been a hit among children for years, taking its name from the cartoon character.

At Tastee Zone, Wheeler said Nemo — a blend of orange and cotton candy — and Dory — a part lemon, part skylite snowball — have been popular among the younger eaters, presumably fans of the Disney movie, "Finding Nemo."

"Children are happy to order it," McLane said. "They know what they're ordering."

But egg custard is the top flavor in Baltimore County, according to the shop employees and owners. ATCO also has the original recipe for the popular pick.

"It's got a hint of vanilla in it, but that's as far as we can tell you," McLane said.

Customers are particular even to the type of ice used in the snowball. The shaved ice, which is used at Tastee Zone, is more popular outside of Baltimore City, McLane said. She'll used bagged ice, which she described as more traditional, at events.

"The shaved ice is much finer, so the syrup adheres more to the ice than running to the bottom of the cup," she said. "But the crunchier ice, in defense of that, it holds up better in hot temperatures and doesn't melt as quick."

And as far as what goes on top — or inside — the snowball, ice cream is popular, but it doesn't compare in popularity to marshmallow. And customers are particular about their marshmallow, Jodi Corbitt said.

At Opie's, the product is bought in a tub and then doctored up to the consistencey they like, to make it fluffier and creamier.

"We go through buckets of it like you wouldn't believe," said Jodi Corbitt — about a five gallon bucket every two days.

Pink Flamingo Sno-Balls on Maiden Choice Lane in Arbutus has seen business increase as temperatures in Baltimore County hit 100 degrees on Wednesday.

Price has been part of the snowball's popularity. When Opie's opened, the smallest sized snowball was 35 cents, while the largest was $1. Now, the smallest is $1 and the largest is $2.75. The cost of product is why the price has increased, Jodi Corbitt said.

"It's a family thing," John Corbitt said. "You want to try to keep it relatively low for the kids. I couldn't tell you how much the percentage of our business is kids, but it's huge."

Cool profits

As a business, snowball stands and shops can be lucrative in season.

At Opie's — which opens during the public schools' spring break or April 1, whichever comes first, through mid-October — the stand sells about 350 snowballs on a busy and warm day. On a slower, cooler day, it sells about 250.

But what does it take to run one?

Baltimore-based Koldkiss sells an industrial-grade ice shaver for $1,469.95 and a portable ice shaver for $395 on its website, while a home kit costs $59.95.

Nearly 100 ready-to-use flavors, from almond to wine cooler, come in 3-liter bottles and cost $6.20 online, while an 11-pound pail of marshmallow topping costs $17.75.

There are also labor expenses, real estate fees, licenses, insurance and other equipment and overhead costs to factor. Ice is often the cheapest commodity.

One industry provisioner estimates net profits reaching 50 percent to 60 percent.

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