A juicy peach, an heirloom tomato and a soft serve ice cream cone are all foods that signify summer. But ask any Baltimore native about the most iconic food of the season, and you’ll likely find yourself in a conversation about snowballs.
WASHINGTON — When a youth sports tournament comes to Cedar Lane Regional Park in Bel Air, Maryland, Ed Castronova fields a common question: “What’s a snowball?”
His response: There’s nothing like it.
Sharon’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice, which Castronova’s wife, Sharon, opened in 2001, operates one of its three locations at the athletic complex. And when out-of-town-athletes come to the center to compete, he cools them down with a cup of shaved ice, covered in flavored syrup and topped (and sometimes layered) with smooth marshmallow cream — in other words, a snowball.
“I can remember in 1955, in Baltimore city, people would sell them out of their basement windows in a row home and they’d have a little sign there, ‘snowballs.’ And you would press a button, a bell would ring and some little old lady or little old guy would walk up to the window and say, ‘What do you want?’” Castronova explained.
For traditionalists, the favored flavor was — and still is — egg custard, which has a sweet, creme brulee-like taste. Cherry and chocolate are also popular.
Snowballs have since spread out of the city and into Baltimore’s surrounding suburbs. And these days, you are more likely to find them in a stand that resembles a shed or trailer rather than a row house.
Just don’t venture too far from Charm City in search of the summertime treat.
“If you get out of the Baltimore surrounding area, even other parts of Maryland, they don’t have snowballs. This is the hot bed for them, right here,” Castronova said.
Snowballs have been a big part of Neil Covington’s life since birth. His mother opened a snowball stand, called Emmorton Snowballs and Ice Cream, in a lot surrounded by cornfields in Bel Air, Maryland in 1981 — two months before he was born.
“When I was very young, I spent a lot of time in a playpen outside the snowball stand, and when I was old enough to reach the countertops, I would try to make my own snowballs,” Covington said.
In 2011, he took over the family business, which he now runs with his wife, Jamie.
On a busy day, he said the line snakes through the parking lot to the stand, where six or seven employees serve customers through four windows. Covington estimates he sells about 3,000 snowballs during a good summer week.
Flavors run the gamut at Emmorton, from the classic custard to mix-and-match creations — including a snowball stacked with chocolate, peanut butter sauce, caramel and peanuts. Covington also sells ice cream, which customers can layer into their snowballs, along with the marshmallow topping.
One thing snowball fans are particular about is the texture of the ice used in the dessert. Covington said there are two different ways to make and serve a snowball — one uses shavings from a single block of ice, the other (and Covington’s preferred method) finely chips ice from cubes.
“They’re both very good products, but people who are into snowballs are very set on one or the other being their favorite,” Covington said.
Just like the name suggests, Sharon’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice shaves its ice from a 10-pound block, which Castronova said gives the end product a finer, smoother consistency.
At a location just off Baltimore Pike, sandwiched between a McDonald’s and an Aldi, Sharon’s has a similar list of mix-and-match flavor combinations. Egg custard, plus chocolate and cream yields a frozen-like Boston cream pie, and almond, coconut and chocolate models a popular candy bar.
And like Emmorton, which is just a few miles away, a nice summer night will attract a crowd to Sharon’s snowball business. (Castronova said it’s not uncommon for the stand to go through 15 5-gallon buckets of marshmallow topping in one week.)
Castronova attributes part of the snowball’s appeal to its seasonality, since stands close down for winter.
“If it was all year round, I don’t think there would be as much excitement around getting a snowball, but everybody waits for that first snowball in April,” Castronova said.
Covington said it’s not uncommon for loyal customers to show up with coolers during his last week of business in October. Fans fill their coolers with 20 or so snowballs to tide them over for the following five months.
Snowballs are not entirely exclusive to Baltimore — they are easy to find in New Orleans and Hawaii — but Covington guesses the reason they are not more popular in other pockets around the country is because they don’t carry the same cultural significance.
“It’s something that most people from here remember doing when they were young. It’s something that people want to share with their children when they get older. In an odd way it just becomes very localized, and everybody here has a lot of joy and memories and history associated with snowballs,” Covington said.
“When you try to sell ice with flavored corn syrup over it to people who don’t have that memory of it being something special, it’s just ice with corn syrup.”
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