New Orleans frozen treat is an American classic
Shortly after Mardi Gras on Feb. 25, another grand New Orleans tradition begins: the reopening of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz stand, usually around March 1.
A Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is not your average snow cone. It’s an ethereal treat, powdery as Aspen snow, layered with flavors like lavender, satsuma and passionfruit.
“It’s light and fluffy, like an airy gelato,” says Ashley Hansen, 46, the third-generation owner of the business. “If you bite into something crunchy, there’s something wrong with the machine.”
The city has several snowball stands, but only one Sno-Bliz. Ashley’s grandfather, Ernest C. Hansen, invented the motorized ice-shaving machine in 1934.
Back then, snowballs were sold from pushcarts, with vendors using a wooden planer to shave a block of ice. “The vendor would plane the ice in front of you into cardboard trays, and it was filthy,” Ashley says.
Ernest’s wife, Mary, created homemade syrups and made frozen treats using the prototype machine. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz at first operated on the sidewalk outside Mary’s mother’s house. Untouched by human hands, her confection was sanitary. The ice was ground more finely, and the flavorings, made fresh daily, were better. She charged 2 cents, double the going rate at the time.
By the mid-1940s, the Hansens had established a storefront. In 1944, the business moved to its current location.
“My grandfather built the machine, but my grandmother built the business,” Ashley says. Mary remembered each customer’s favorite flavor. The grandchildren of her original customers are Sno-Bliz customers today.
Ashley, who was always very close to her grandparents and began helping them when she was 12, took over the business from them. Neither her father, Gerard (Jerry), nor his brother (Ernest Jr.) worked in the business, though Jerry helped her at a few critical times.
“My grandfather told his sons, ‘I wear blue jeans so that you won’t have to.’ He wanted them to go to college and have professional careers with titles,” Ashley says. Jerry became an attorney and Ernest Jr., a pediatrician.
Ashley is a twin; her sister, Allison Hansen Mullis, works at Bell Helicopter. One young cousin works at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz part-time after school.
Mary never wrote down any of her syrup recipes. As she grew older, it became obvious that dementia was setting in. Ashley would watch her make the syrups, and late at night she and her dad would experiment until they got the flavors right.
“Every morning I would make the syrups, then pick up my grandparents, make sure they were clean, make their breakfast, and bring them over” to the stand, Ashley says. “My grandmother would see the syrup I’d made and think it was all left over from the day before and want to throw it out. I had to convince her that I’d just made it.”
Ernest taught Ashley about mechanics, and to this day she uses — and personally maintains — the second machine he built in 1939.
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, “Places that didn’t flood have become more valuable in both a sentimental and economic way,” says Ashley. “Everyone knows what it’s like to lose so many precious things.”
Hansen’s stand, located on the highest point of the city, was not flooded, although its roof was damaged.
The hurricane was just one of the traumatic experiences that befell the family that year.
In March 2005, Ashley’s mother, Marie, a teacher, died suddenly. Ashley’s pet dog died just before Katrina hit.
In the wake of the storm, “Both the house I grew up in and my grandparents’ house across the street had 8 feet of water in them,” Ashley says.
“My grandmother was in the hospital, not doing well. I wanted to evacuate. Dad said no but I said, ‘You’re leaving with me.’ My grandfather would not leave his wife, so we got permission from the hospital to leave him there with a sitter so that he wouldn’t be the hospital’s responsibility.”
By then, the evacuating traffic was already gridlocked. Ashley and Jerry were stuck for more than 11 hours. Eventually, they headed to northern Louisiana, where they stayed at a friend’s house.
“When we heard the levees broke, we just cried.”
They also were frantic about Ernest and Mary. “When the hospitals failed, it was not like a normal medical evacuation,” Ashley says. “We had no idea where they were. We spent days trying to find them.”
At the time, Allison was working at the Pentagon, and her military friends helped to find Ernest and Mary at two different hospitals, two miles apart, in northern Louisiana.
“We snuck my grandfather out to be with his wife till she died, at age 95, after 72 years of marriage,” Ashley says. Ernest died the following March at age 94.
“People left sunflowers, old Polaroids, letters from kids when my grandfather passed. That’s when I realized they were also grandparents for half the city.”
Ashley later married and divorced. Through it all, Sno-Bliz has been her anchor. Now a single mom, she calls taking care of her grandparents and their business her superpower.
Her efforts were honored in 2014, when Sno-Bliz received an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. The award honors regional eateries with timeless appeal whose offerings reflect the community they serve.
Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business.
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