While Baltimore is famous for crabs, there’s another summer treat that every Baltimorean looks forward to all year long: the snowball. Snowballs are distinct from other forms of icy treats like Italian ice and the far-inferior snow cone. It is shaved ice (not chopped or ground), topped with a sweet syrup (never fresh fruit), and served in long cup. (Sometimes, it is even bisected with marshmallow fluff or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to add a creamy element to the texture.) Every Baltimorean I know either worked at or regularly patronized a snowball stand during childhood summers in order survive the Maryland humidity.
Snowballs have been a staple of Baltimorean lives since the 1800s. According to PreservationMaryland.org, ice shipments would pass through Baltimore on their way South, and children would chase the trucks asking for shavings. Jess Mayhugh at Serious Eats explains that when children brought the shavings home, their mothers topped them with egg, vanilla, and sugar, creating the original recipe for the classic snowball flavor, “egg custard.” This “penny sundae” has been a favorite low-cost summer treat in Charm City ever since!
Snowball stands now dot the Maryland map, and flavors have expanded beyond the original to dozens of other tastes and combinations. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have a snowball machine in my house, and my grandfather had a different type at his home in Rehoboth Beach, so I have 30 years of experience with shaved ice shenanigans.
Because of my lifetime experience with the Baltimore snowball, I was incredulous when I heard Hawaiians claiming they had the most delicious shaved ice dessert in America. So, here is my (not entirely unbiased) point by point comparison of these 2 sweet icy treats.
In this arena, these two types of shaved ice are simply different.
While egg custard is now made synthetically instead of with fresh egg, it remains a favorite flavor for Baltimore snowballs. Other top choices include cherry, thick chocolate sauce, and Skylite (Koldkiss’s electric-colored, raspberry-inspired concoction).
Hawaiian shave ice on the other hand offers a variety of Asian-inspired flavors like yuzu, guava, and mizores (Japanese bubble soda). Mastsumoto Shave Ice (on the north shore of Oahu) also offered local Hawaiian flavors like lihikai, a version of passion fruit. Instead of marshmallow, you can also top Hawaiian shave ice with condensed milk or a bean syrup. (Not my taste, but I’m sure it’s a hit for many people.)
This is the area in which Baltimore snowballls and Hawaiian shave ice are most similar. Both treats are, indeed, shaved. Hawaiian ice is shaved circularly off a large block of ice and snowball machines are generally top-loaded with the ice shaved horizontally as gravity pushes it down.
As a result, both of these treats have a refreshing and smooth consistency. They are neither chunky like a snow cone, nor so light they evaporate in your mouth like the “snow” that has recently found popularity at shops like Snowdays.
Here’s the category where I think the Baltimore snowball really romps the competition. Thankfully, neither of these treats are presented in a paper cone, like a snow cone. That simply drains all the flavoring to the bottom, and lets it seep through onto your hands.
However, the Hawaiian ice presentation also fails by comparison. It is presented as an enormous ball in a bowl (far too big if you ask me). You are supposed to dig into your shave ice with a tiny wooden paddle which, while less wasteful for the environment, makes for tiny bites and inflexible scooping. I found that in this format the shave ice quickly melted into a soup, and it was even a rainy day! Without chunks of ice to temper it, I found the flavoring far too sweet, so I was rushing to enjoy the shave ice before I was forced to throw a lot of it out. Finally, mochi was presented as a “topping” for the shave ice, but because of the tiny wooden utensil and the giant ball shape, it was really more of a side dish, and couldn’t easily be eaten with the shave ice itself.
The Baltimore presentation in a tall cup with a long plastic spoon is clearly superior. It maximizes freeze time, and allows you to dig into the cup for different levels of syrup saturation.
Overall, my loyalty remains with the shave ice delicacy of my youth. However, I did appreciate that my travels exposed me to a worthy culinary rival.