When I first met Ernest and Mary Hansen in 1980, I was a freelancer researching a story for New Orleans Magazine. The topic was snowballs, and I thought I would be talking to a bunch of pimply teens operating stands for summer money.
Snowballs as an industry seemed about as simple as splashing syrup on ice, but I would learn otherwise.
The business had its giants – those whose innovations set the classic New Orleans-style snowball apart from, say, a snow cone sold at a county fair. If there was a snowball Hall of Fame, two of the central characters would be Ernest and Mary Hansen.
STREETCAR: Ernest and MaryBy the time I first walked into their shop on Tchoupitoulas and Bordeaux streets, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the two were already celebrities. The shop was decorated with newspaper and magazine articles. Mary Hansen was especially proud of the clippings and loved to point to them and to talk about the generations of college students who kept on returning. The Hansens had a good sense of marketing, but they also had a good product.
Since there was no one official to do it, I declared their product to be “the world’s best snowball,” a pronouncement which I never regretted nor which has been challenged. What made it the best was, first of all, the machine, a one-of-a-kind, barrel-shaped contraption that produced the finest snow ever made by man. Ernest
Hansen created the device in 1934 while working in a machine shop. His young, pregnant wife wanted to earn a little extra money, so he set her up underneath their home’s mulberry tree. Ernest Hansen’s device would never be duplicated. He was always protective about revealing what pulverized the ice so finely. (Possible answers: a drill bit or magic.
Next, there was the syrup. Most snowball stands buy commercial syrups. Mary Hansen made her own, in a kitchen behind the shop. Most of the flavors were extraordinary; my self-pronounced world’s-greatest flavor was the tart lemon – a mixture that exercised the taste buds to a rapid heartbeat between sweet and tangy.
Finally, there was the preparation. A Hansen’s snowball alternated layers of ice and syrup. The customer received the perfect snowball – detailed in contents and construction, with the kitchen-made juices already permeating the ice. “There’s no substitute for quality” was the Hansens’ motto, a message emblazoned on the wall and on their plastic cups. A cup of quality could be purchased for under $2.
For nearly 60 years after opening their permanent business in 1939, the Hansens purveyed snowballs while watching the lines grow longer and the generations pass.
During one of my first visits, Mary had to break stride to prepare four gallon buckets of snowballs priced at $25 apiece. The air conditioning had broken at the Civil Court building, so a law firm had ordered a bucket for each floor of the building. Justice that day was not only blind, but cool.
Mary liked to tell about the fraternities that ordered snowballs by the garbage can full. The contents would be spiked with hooch for parties. If a customer bought a humongous, dome-shaped snowball called “the Superdome,” Mary would snap his picture. Then there was the “Frozen,” a special concoction kept in the freezer.
Each cup consisted of ice cream encrusted in nectar-flavored ice – the world’s best.
Mary and Ernest Hansen owned the ultimate momand- pop business. Each displayed the kindliness that such a title suggests. In later years, they worked shorter hours, and family members kicked in. The newspaper clippings were yellowing, but the lines continued to form.
This will be the first snowball season since that summer under the mulberry tree without the Hansens. Mary died during the dark days of the Katrina evacuation.
Without her, Ernest Hansen didn’t last much longer, calling it quits at the end of March.
So their saga ends with splashes of memories. Their granddaughter Ashley, thankfully, now runs the business.
Her father, Gerard, is a city magistrate judge and is candid about his political base when he was first elected in 1978. He was bolstered by his family name and its identity with his parents, who even recorded radio commercials for him. Candidates have been elected before based on the power of the machine – only in Gerard’s case, the machine was a Sno Bliz.
To the credit of Ernest and Mary, their machine still rules.