It's a Baltimore tradition. Hot, steamy summer days mean snowballs.
Be it the inner city or the outer suburbs, snowballs reign supreme this time of year in this region. Experts say only one other town rivals Baltimore when it comes to savoring shaved ice doused with colored syrup. Let New Orleans try as it may, Charm City is far and away the champ.
Old-timers remember ad hoc snowball stands that would spring up faster than lemonade stands in July and August. Back then, the favorite flavor was egg custard and that hardy standby, cherry syrup.
Nowadays, the flavor selection is mind-boggling. Anything from tutti frutti to exotic Hawaiian blends (a quarter extra), to bubble gum and a raft of esoteric names that attempt to expand the colors of the rainbow. There's even a kosher snowball vendor in Northwest Baltimore.
Snowball shops can be small entrepreneurial efforts run by teen-agers or big business. One Howard County location goes through 560 pounds of ice a day and each week uses 800 pounds of sugar and six cases of paper towels. Everyone seems to have a favorite stand, even if the lines may mean a wait.
Yet even snowballs can melt under the heat of politics, courts and bureaucracies. Those meanies in government are cracking down on snowball-makers.
Starting Oct. 1, it will cost $250 a year to run a snowball stand in Anne Arundel County, and you can't set one up on your front lawn, either. Only in commercial sites are allowed.
In Annapolis, a judge shut down a snowball stand run by kids because it didn't match the nearby Georgian architecture. And in Baltimore County, a zoning fight still marches on over a real estate broker's attempt to have her three children run a snowball stand in Brooklandville.
Baltimore City has the right idea. There are so many unlicensed city snowball vendors that officials gave up trying to enforce its permit regulation. Not much harm in that, especially when so many locals can get a break from the heat and humidity.
Why this passion over snowballs? Sure, there's money to be made from a stand in the right locale. But from a customer's perspective, the key ingredients are the refreshing coolness of the shaved ice and the tasty syrups. A welcome pick-up when you're dragging. Some day maybe the rest of the country will catch on. But for now, Baltimoreans are savoring their cool little summer secret.