So it was one of those brilliantly warm March days in New Orleans, temperature in the high 70s, clear blue sky, and a slight hint of the scent of jasmine in the air. One can sense the warm weather about to take up permanent residence in the city, which of course means it is time to go get a sno ball! Other cities have flavored shaved ice but we have a hot weather concoction of all our own made of crushed ice, covered in flavors…but because this is New Orleans and we are talking about food, good is never enough so our sno balls have a decadent condensed milk center and toppings like caramel or marshmallows or crushed strawberries. Everyone has their favorite sno ball stand as there are differences in the ice consistency and flavors. If you live uptown, you go to Hansen’s Snobliz, which was started in 1939 by Ernest and Mary Hansen and is now run by their granddaughter who makes her own toppings from secret recipes. The topping are amazing (she has a café au lait and cardamom) but it is the ice, large rectangular blocks fed into the back of a machine Ernest built and patented shaved by a rotary bade, which makes the difference.
Lines for Hansen’s are always long; during the summer they snake along the corner and reach into the next block. The building itself is tiny and is covered with faded newspaper clippings, Polaroids of customers from decades ago, and hand written posters listing flavors and toppings from the 1950’s. It is definitely a step back to the past…everything done by hand. Customers are first asked their size preference, the ice is shaved for that specific sno ball, another staff pours on the flavoring, a third handles the toppings and yet another takes your money (but not until you have the sno ball in your hand.) As a result, the line just crawls forward and when you get inside the two large rotating fans do little to stem the sweat which starts to form in all your crevices. More than once you have to wonder if it is worth the wait while the anticipation builds and you begin to salivate as you see customers leave with their custom made sno ball.
So it got me thinking how Hansen’s represents the best and worst of New Orleans. On one hand, it harkens to a bespoke era when everything was handmade and there was pride in the process (there are signs throughout Hansen’s which say “there are no short-cuts to quality”) and staff behind the counter take the time to have thoughtful discussions with each customer; they are delighted to patiently puzzle over the choice of flavors and topping and enhancements. On the other hand, it is a time efficiency nightmare and one feel less nostalgic when the heat and humidity seems to win out over the charm of the place and the deliciousness of their offerings. Both things are true, it is unique seasonal delight and offers a taste not found elsewhere – and the camaraderie formed in the line is quintessential New Orleans (rumor has it more than one romance was sparked while waiting for service). However, it is a ridiculous, anachronistic way to get a shaved ice and seems to purposely operate in a way which defies efficiency. Like so much in this city, we know there is probably a faster way to do business but we happily accept the wait and sweat because we believe the end result is worth it – and somehow if it was to happen more efficiently, more twenty-first century, it just would not be as good. Heaven help those who suggest otherwise, for those folks there is always TCBY and Kona.