Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Snowball by Any Other Name is not from Hansen's


It is often in our weakest, most vulnerable moments, when we least expect it, that we find what we love. Which is why it makes perfect sense that I discovered Hansens' after a grueling 2.5 hour meeting for work. As I walk out of the torturous conference room with my good friend and New Orleans-lifer, Charles, the construction manager on staff, he turns to me and says, knowingly, "Come on, let's go." One look and I understand that it's time for a mental health break from work.

In my golden olden days as a lawyer in Alaska, these words typically meant a bourbon on the rocks after a long trial or ugly dispute in court. For Charles, in my new world and new life, instead, the command meant a stop at Hansens. "We need a snowball," he says to me as we walk into the parking lot under a scorching 97 degree sun.

Snowball is New Orleans-speak for snow cone, but without the cone. Usually served in a cup, and well over half of the year, in a swampy existence like New Orleans, it's the next best thing to mobile air-conditioning. And of course, in perfect New Orleans form, the snowball can be over the top, served with sweetened condensed milk, gummy bears, or a lump of ice cream in the middle. One can find a snowball stand in a small corner store, or in a mobile truck outside a bar at 3am. Like a magical gnome appearing when you least expect it, the snowball stand is a regular feat of magic.

I naturally but mistakenly presume we're heading for one of our usual stops, the Red Rooster, a corner shack in the disinvested Central City neighborhood we work in that sells lovely hot plates like gumbo and fried fish. Instead, we drive uptown, zigzagging through the giant mansions of the Garden District, in and around less grandiose but equally historic blocks of the Irish Channel, until we arrive at a tiny, unnoticeable hole in the wall, faded paint on old stucco, barely a sign to be found. I have passed it many times driving down Tcoupitoulas on my way to Rouse's grocery, yet never did I notice the painted words Hansens Sno-Bliz.

"Huh? No Red Rooster?" Charles, in all seriousness, his dreadlocks blowing in the wind, turns to me and says, "No. Trust me. It's like a cloud."

We step through small, double swinging doors, with metal grates over both windows. Inside looks a set from a 1970's show, with wood-siding on the walls, every inch covered with photographs, bumper stickers, old t-shirts with funny sayings, newspaper articles, a large picture of a magistrate judge (the son of the original owners), and a hand-scrawled sign proclaiming, "There are STILL no short cuts to quality". The menu of flavors is extensive, posted on two plastic boards with changeable letters. Sizes are denoted with eight or nine different cups with prices underneath.

And the ice shaving machine is priceless. The only one of its kind, the original owners of the shop invented it and obtained a patent in the '30's. A combination of a sliding meat slicer and something kind of scary, it is operated diligently and carefully by a staff member holding a large piece of clear ice onto a sliding metal component which moves back and forth. Cups are jammed underneath and are filled in three stages, interspersed with generous helpings of homemade flavorings. The one in operation is only second generation from the original animal.

Around the same time he created the snow-shaver, Ernst Hansen's wife, a talented Italian cook, developed a line of flavorings from spring water. They opened shop in 1934, and moved to its current location 10 years later. It has been operational since, with a hiatus when first Mrs. Hansen, then Mr. Hansen died within a year after evacuating from Hurricane Katrina, both in their mid-90's by that time. The shop was reopened by the grand-daughter of the original founders. At 72 years strong, it has a loyal following, some of which have created a line out the door on this and many other days.

I order creme of almond, with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk in the middle and on top. After all is said and done, the snowball is the size of a wiffleball perched on a tin can, with a small crater filled with condensed milk on top. We pay the owner-operator, the last Hansen working the shop, who puts our money into the cash register which is comprised of only a wooden drawer in an old dresser. Charles asks where the tip jar is and the staff takes it out of a cupboard, explaining that they don't want people to feel obligated; they'd rather us come back for more with friends. The owner explains that her grandmother would have had a heart attack if she knew that a tip jar was on the premises. We drop off a dollar and head back into the burning heat to sit on the metal bench outside.

And then it happened. My first bite was something akin to almond-flavored, frosted cotton candy, a cloud, and a kiss on the forehead by a unicorn. I was dumbfounded. The ice is noticeably finer, fluffier, than the any of the dozens of snowballs I've consumed to date. Childhood memories crawl out from the crevices of my brain, of family vacation ski trips when my sister and I would take afternoon lunch breaks and purposely spill our cranberry juice boxes into freshly fallen snow.

I am not alone in my newly-minted addiction. While we are seated outside, we see a teenager in a school girl uniform hop out of an SUV as her mom waits for her with the engine running. At the same time a couple park a car and make their way to the door. The teenager looks at her competition with a side glance and speeds up her pace just short of sprinting. She opens the door to find the line spilling out, and dejectedly turns around back towards her mother, money crumpled up in her hand, head hanging.

On one of my many subsequent visits I was able to arrive exactly upon the opening of its doors at 1pm in the afternoon, on a Wednesday. But I was not the only one keeping track of Hansen's doors; of all the gin joints in the world walks in Ragin' Cajun James Carville, whose books and movie about his work on the Clinton campaign once played an influential role in my own brief career as a campaign manager.

Shaved ice and sugar. For 72 years these two elements properly executed have made frustrating and sweltering New Orleans afternoons more livable, more joyful--for school girls, campaign managers, construction managers, or even just small time explorers alike. Hansen's snow-blizes are proof that sometimes, the best things in life cost less than $5.00.

No comments:

Post a Comment