Have a Ball In and around Baltimore, it is the appearance of the snowball that officially puts winter on ice.; RITES OF SPRING


This week, five Today writers document signs of spring.

The first pitch. No.

The first robin. No.

The first crocus. No.

Those are shopworn signs of spring. For 8-year-old Roman Rachuba, the season officially begins on a sunny afternoon in April when his mother picks him up after school and they head to Opie's, that tiny wooden stand on Edmonson Avenue in Catonsville.

The first snowball.

Yes. Oh, yes.

"It's kind of a ritual when the weather gets warm," Michelle Rachuba says. Her son, lost in a snowball coma, was too busy digging into a spearmint and sky blue treat to chat.

(Snowball Rule No. 1: Most of the first spoonful inevitably lands on the ground).

This is how you know it's spring in the Baltimore area: Venture three blocks in any direction, and chances are good that you'll see an open snowball stand.

Some are little more than a shack and a handpainted sign. Others are established businesses. Some are operated by teens. Others by families. All have the essential ingredients: crushed ice, dozens of flavors and lines of people.

With summer-like temperatures, this weekend was snowball heaven. At B & B Snowballs and Crabs in Ferndale, two windows were open, with the lines sometimes 15 people deep.

"Yesterday I must have made 700 snowballs," 15-year-old Tina Liberto said Sunday. "I was here from 11 in the morning until 10 at night."

But it's the promise of summer that people want with their snowballs, not the actual event. John Corbitt, who owns Opie's in Catonsville, says business peaks in May and June, then drops off dramatically in August. Apparently it can get too hot, even for snowballs, although you might get an argument from anyone under the age of 12.

It's easy to understand why youngsters gravitate toward snowballs. They're cold, they're sweet, they're crunchy, they're cheap, they're messy -- what's not to like? But snowballs bridge generations. Modern families may not have enough time to eat supper together, but there's enough time to get a treat before bedtime.

"It's very much a Baltimore thing," Bruce Gapsis says.

He should know. Gapsis and his, brother, Brian, may have sold more snowballs than anybody else in the area. They opened their first stand 35 years ago on the family's front porch in Arbutus.

They now own three stands and Koldkiss, a Baltimore company that supplies ice-shaving machines, flavor concentrates and ready-to-use syrups to hundreds of outlets throughout the country.

As befits most traditions, the origin of the snowball remains murky. Gapsis says they have been available in Baltimore for at ** least 75 years, maybe longer, but he doesn't know who to credit with inventing them.

A snowball is not a snowcone. The texture of the ice is different -- chunkier in snowcones, finer in snowballs -- and snowcones come in those waxy, conical-shaped packages "that fall apart in your hands," Gapsis says. Snowballs come in a cup with a spoon.

A snowball is not shaved ice, although they are similar. The texture of shaved ice is even finer. If you asked for a snowball in Washington, D.C., people there might tell you to come back in December. They call their spring treats shaved ice.

A snowball is not Hawaiian ice. "That's a cream-based flavor, generally," he says. Actually, in Hawaii, what we call a snowball is referred to as "shave ice," and can be ordered with extras, such as ice cream or sweet red beans.

A snowball is not a Slurpee. Slurpees are more like ice mush -- or slushes, as they are called in some states. "We've always beat Slurpees," Gapsis says dismissively, "because we've had such a large choice of flavors."

What a snowball is: Crushed ice loaded into a cup and drenched TC with your favorite flavor. That could be anything from blueberry to bubble gum, coconut to creme de mint, macadamia to mandarin, pomegranate to pineapple.

Koldkiss supplies more than 100 flavors. New flavors are added each year (remember Barney purple?) and this year's entries are Titanic, which Gapsis describes as "a fruity blue flavor," and Spice Girls, "a fruity red flavor."

He says the most popular flavors in Baltimore are egg custard, cherry and chocolate. And don't forget the marshmallow topping.

"If you don't have marshmallow in Baltimore, you're not going to sell snowballs."

Gapsis credits his mother, Betty, with recognizing the potential for snowballs when he and his brother were kids.

Their first stand, the one on the porch, lasted until a police officer moved in next door and reported them to the zoning board. Despite a neighborhood petition drive, they were forced to move to another location in Arbutus. They also have stands in Maiden Choice and Westview.

Despite his expertise, Gapsis can't explain the popularity of snowballs. "It's like baseball," he says. "It's a social thing. You see everybody all over again."

Like the Gapsis brothers, Corbitt started young. Fifteen years ago, when he was 19, he built a eight-by-eight-foot stand in Catonsville and called it Opie's, a childhood nickname.

"It just kind of worked," he says.

It worked well enough that Corbitt paid his way through college and bought a car, mostly with snowball proceeds. It worked well enough that his mother, Tish, started a restaurant, also called Opie's, that features homemade soup, sandwiches and, of course, snowballs in season.

While Corbitt still owns the original Opie's stand, the business is managed by Eric Collins, 22, who has worked there since he was 15, with an assist from his sisters.

"I love snowballs," says Amanda Collins, 17. "I'm going to try every flavor."

When Corbitt opened, there was just one competitor. Now there are six snowball stands in Catonsville. Business has mushroomed (one of the few flavors you won't find there.)

Snowball eaters are as picky as wine connoisseurs, but they are loyal. Dave Collison of Glen Burnie drove five miles just to buy a snowball this weekend at B & B Snowballs and Crabs.

"They're the best in town," he says.

"They make their own flavors," adds Carol Liberto, whose daughter Tina works at the stand. She is waiting in line with her grandson, Tommy, 9, a member of the White Sox All-Star team. Their game is over.

"We lost bad," Tommy says.

(Snowball Rule No. 2: Having Grandma treat you to a chocolate and marshmallow snowball is a perfectly acceptable consolation prize).

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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