Many things divide the people of New Orleans, but the shaved ice treat known as the Cream of Nectar Sno-Bliz might be the one thing that they can all agree upon.
You could spend inordinate amounts of time examining the economic and social class structures of New Orleans, but it only takes a quick look around this city to realize that there are no easy solutions to its disparities. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, during the humid heights of summer, yellow fever epidemics claimed thousands of lives as the city's wealthy absconded to more hospitable climates. Only ten years ago, those who could afford to evacuate an incoming hurricane's path did so; those who couldn't were left to contend with the rising water and all the destruction it brought with it.
But somewhere in between these tragedies, a great, if not fleeting, equalizer presented itself to New Orleanians—a confection whose wellbeing, like the city's denizens, is wholly affected by the city's harsh climate, and whose flavor is as inimitable as the culture that created it. I'm talking about the sno-ball, a temporary balm on the city's recurrent natural and human-made wounds.
Stay with me here.
For years, the golden age of soda fountains provided New Orleanians a number of soft drink styles. By far, the most popular flavor among them was "nectar," a creamy, sweet flavor—distinct, but not at all overpowering. Think wedding cake with a hint of almond. For generations, they were a staple of any New Orleans childhood, a summer treat that helped one endure the brutal Louisiana swampland.
"There was a time when every little place was producing sodas and special syrups to mix with soda water ... Nectar soda was just a really, really popular flavor in New Orleans, and came to be associated with [the city]," says Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. "I think that the Hansens recognized that was a popular flavor. They couldn't call it Nectar Soda, so they called it Cream of Nectar."
The last of the city's soda fountains closed up shop years ago, but the nectar flavor had long since infiltrated other mediums. Ernest Hansen, a Crescent City machinist by trade, patented the first shaved ice mechanism during the Great Depression after watching a sweaty sno-ball vendor prepare his offerings by hand with wood-shaving equipment, a process Hansen found a tad unsanitary. It wasn't long before US Patent 2515923 became a revolutionary invention—the Gutenberg press of sno-cone machinery—and ushered in a new era of culinary heat management.
"It's almost a rite of passage," Ashley Hansen, granddaughter of the New Orleans dessert pioneers, explains. "You kind of grow up having nectar sno-balls, or at one point, nectar sodas. Then you order something different when you learn how to read, and you realize there's a menu."
Ernest and Mary both passed away within a year after Hurricane Katrina, and now Ashley manages the sole Hansen's location on Tchoupitoulas Street, a winding thoroughfare bordering the Mississippi River. I talked with her over the phone about why, out of the myriad of choices, Cream of Nectar is, well, the cream of the crop.
"Everyone has these memories associated with their childhood ... Nectar is like that. Nectar you don't tweak, because it's too much a part of what you taste growing up. Your memory recalls those flavors," she says.
Perhaps one of the reasons Cream of Nectar is so popular in the city is its ubiquity. Decades have passed, multiple generations have indulged in the Pepto-Bismol pink snack, but Hansen's Cream of Nectar is unchanged.
"It's kind of like a gumbo here, or red beans and rice. Everybody has their own recipes, and everyone thinks theirs is the best … Don't fix it if it ain't broke," she says.
The next day, I waited for 30 minutes to try this staple of sno-balls in a line that wrapped around the block. This is no odd occurrence, either. Part of the Hansen's experience is waiting in line under the oppressive summer sun, a pilgrimage to sweet, snowy bliss. While standing in the queue, a gaggle of college girl tourists behind me reconvened from their separate day trips and compared finds.
"We saw Beyonce's new house!" two of them confirmed.
A friend saw them a celebrity home, and raised them a pop star sighting.
We eventually rounded the corner of Hansen's shop, taking us into a small, fan-cooled cinder block room. Two counters featured the massive, Ernest-patented contraptions that appeared capable of generating one of two options: delicate confections, or interesting reason why you now only write with your left hand. For some reason, one of the tourists behind me began listing aloud all of the potential flavor combinations offered by the Hansen family. It took her a good five minutes to finish.
On any given summer day, Hansen's Sno-Bliz features one of the best cross-sections of New Orleans demographics: tourists, gutter punks, Uptown families, elderly couples raised on the desserts. In a city harshly divided by class and race, the entire town sets aside its differences when sno-balls are on the line. Ahead of me, a tattooed fixed-gear biker with "Ride Till You Die" emblazoned on his arm ordered a Cream of Nectar topped with condensed milk. I watched through one of his gauged earlobes as a Hansen's employee fed a log of ice into the machine as it ground away at the frozen block. The resulting snow was packed into a cup in stages as the syrup was poured. It's a precise ritual repeated again and again: pack, pour, pack, pour, pack, pour. The top is molded into a small hill, doused a final time, and claimed in the name of Hansen's with a small spoon.
Outside, communing with my own Cream of Nectar and condensed milk, I saw two sets of people: the talkative customers-in-waiting and the silent patrons, their heads bowed over their sno-balls in quiet contemplation. It's both a group undertaking as well as a singular experience, generating distinct memories for each individual. What the flavors reminded you of—fixtures from your past, what was important to you at certain points in your life—these are the inimitable things that only you can recall with sno-ball in hand. And, because of its inexpensiveness, almost anyone can partake.
For some reason, as I finished my Cream of Nectar, I remembered a particular first day of summer vacation as a kid, walking home from school realizing a whole freedom ahead of me. It's the first time I distinctly remember my heart feeling lighter, and I've never felt anything quite like that since. Before leaving, I peeked around the corner one more time to plan which flavors I would try next time, and thought of a variation suggested by Ashley when we spoke:
"This is kind of sad, but we have the Atomic. Ice, syrup, cream, crushed pineapple, ice cream, and then a cherry. It's a sugar bomb," she told me.
Society changes, sometimes not for the better, and the future is uncertain in an atomic age. But we can still look to the sno-ball to save us, at least from the heat.