In January and February, when much of the rest of the country is huddled under continuously gray skies and hummocks of a gray snow and soot mixture line the streets and sidewalks, New Orleans begins to bloom with Oriental and Star Magnolia, Camellia, and Orchids. By April, Spring comes fully to life with Crepe Myrtle, Indigo, Gardenia, Oleander, several types of Rose (Crepuscule, Knockout, Peggy Martin, Old Garden), and the heavenly smelling Jasmine. In May, the chorus of sights and smells are joined by Iris, Caladiums, Hydrangea, Ginger, Japanese Maples, Lilies, and the bell shaped Trumpet Brugmansia.
But, for locals, the true signs of Spring are the re-opening of sno-ball stands. Sno-ball stands are as ubiquitous in New Orleans as nail salons in other cities. Just as there is pizza in New York and Chicago and then pizza everywhere else, sno-balls in New Orleans are a different food group.
Locals have their treasured favorite spots. Many are devoted to Pandora’s in Mid-City, more have allegiance to Plum Street Sno Ball. But, for me and many many others, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is the holy shrine of sno-balls stands and one of the most sacred spots in New Orleans. Each year since Ernest and Mary Hansen first opened the doors in 1939, they repaint the number of years they’ve been in business on the side of the building. This year, Hansen’s has reached 78 years through three generations.
Current heiress, Ashley Hansen Springgate, opens each day surrounded by history in the form of yellowed newspaper clippings, old polaroids of customers, many who now bring their kids or grandkids there, and the renowned ice-shaving machine, custom built by Ernest in 1934 and which has a full patent from the U.S. government.
Ernest, a machinist by trade and absent-minded-professor-like tinkerer, built the machine just for family use. It creates this fluffy ice cloud no other sno-ball stand can match. Mary started dragging the ice-shaving apparatus to the street, where she’d sell flavored syrups for two cents. Their homemade gourmet syrups are both richer and more complex than the jarringly sweet store-bought flavors of most other stands. I call them the nectar (cream) of the gods. For me, their best flavor is the limeade with ginger, topped with sweetened condensed milk . . . but I also really like root beer with can cream, or what they call the Brown Pelican . . . and I am nuts for satsuma orange with vanilla bean . . . and . . . heck, I like ’em all. My daughter is strictly a wild cherry girl, the wilder the better. Ashley’s current favorite is the ginger-cayenne. Her 4-year-old likes blueberry and cardamom. Clearly, you’re going to have to come more than once.
When you go to Hansen’s, you have to be prepared to stand in line. Whether there are thirty people waiting to be served or just three, you’ll probably be standing a good thirty to forty minutes. And that’s kind of the point. Hansen’s motto, posted on their website and ancient interior signs states “There are no shortcuts to quality!”
In 2014, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz received the food industry’s highest honor, the James Beard Foundation Award as an “American Classic.” Except for a quick trip to New York to receive the award, Ashley was right back behind the counter. “This is so much fun, I don’t really consider it a real job.”
If your visit to New Orleans is between the end of March to the first Saturday in October, we consider a visit to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz a “must.”
Spring time in New Orleans is as much about our festivals as it is flowers or sno balls. The city is always looking for a reason to have a festival, a party, a parade. Last year, we had our first ever Fried Chicken Festival and many of us wondered what took us so long. We already had festivals for gumbo, po-boys, oysters, seafood, creole tomatoes, BBQ & Blues, Hogs for the Cause, a more general Food Fest, and the Mirliton Fest. Mirliton is a wrinkled green vegetable, most like a squash, and elsewhere called cho-cho, pipinola, or chayotextle.
When I moved to New Orleans, my daughter was eight years old. No eight-year-old wants to leave their backyard and friends. Our 3rd week here, a parade broke out on Magazine Street. To this day, I have no idea what the parade was about. Several brass bands and hundreds of people made it clear, we ain’t going anywhere. So, I inched the car to the curb. We got out and joined the parade. Suddenly, my daughter was “I like New Orleans!”
There will be a festival practically every and any week you are here.
The first weekend of each April is the French Quarter Festival. It highlights local musicians with 23 separate stages playing every type of music from jazz, funk, R&B, blues, folk, gospel, classical, brass band, Latin, cabaret, Cajun, and Zydeco. It is the largest free music festival in the South. Last year’s drew 760,000.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is one of the city’s most renown events each year. It is always held the last weekend in April and first weekend in May. It usually draws 500,000 + people annually.
My first Jazz Fest, when I came as a visitor and not yet resident, I saw Lenny Kravitz, Lyle Lovett, and John Hiatt all on the same day. And they were not the best thing I experienced that day. It’s all the local musicians non-New Orleanians often don’t know whom are most jaw dropping.
This year, the headliners are Stevie Wonder, Maroon 5, Tom Petty, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews, Earth Wind & Fire, Snoop Dogg, Buddy Guy, and Patti LaBelle. Bruce Springsteen, who comes most years and delivers three hour sets, is taking this year off. If you come, it will be Little Freddie King, Meschiya Lake, Rockin Dopsie, Sunpie Barnes, or Big Chief Bo Dollis you will most be talking about when you leave.
There’s also food tents at Jazz Fest where you can get your crawfish, fried oysters, jambalaya, red beans & rice, but the two considered Must Have food items each year are the Cochon de Lait Po-Boy and the Mango Freeze.
When you visit New Orleans, NOLA Tricentennial Tours and we will make your experiences memorable ones. Any of our scripted tours can be customized to include current parades or festivals. We are always willing to create completely customized tours.
CITY THAT CARE FORGOT REMEMBERS - MOMENTS IN NEW ORLEANS’ HISTORY
With our 300th anniversary upon us, each new blog will highlight important or improbable dates
May 1, 1862 - The day Yankee general, Benjamin “Spoons” Butler, marched into New Orleans with 5,000 troops to occupy the city for the duration of the Civil War. New Orleans was taken without a shot being fired. Think of us like Paris in World War II. When “the enemy” showed up, each city basically said, “Just don’t break anything.” While saving New Orleans from a fate like Atlanta, the occupying general is called “Spoons” because when he left, he took most of our silverware.
May 1, 1883 - William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) had his first Wild West Show. His traveling show didn’t make it to New Orleans until December 12, 1884 and was an economic disaster because of heavy rains and a resulting quagmire. One day only 9 people attended. But seeing the performing Plains Indians had a huge and lasting impact of New Orleans African Americans and led directly to the creation of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian culture, their beautiful costumes modeled after Plains Indians combined with West African beading.
May 12, 1984 - Another financial flop, the World’s Fair was a short-term failure, but long term completely reinvigorated the Warehouse District which now houses many of New Orleans best restaurants, museums, large hotels, and convention center.
May 22, 1799 - Silvain became the first live opera performed in our French & Spanish opera loving city. Years later, in 1851 international opera superstar, Jenny Lind, aka The Swedish Nightingale, came to New Orleans and quickly sold out all performances. For all the fans who couldn’t attend, she gave free performances from her 2nd floor balcony while staying at the Pontalba Apartments. Seizing an opportunity, Lady Pontalba had an eBay like auction, selling all the apartment’s furniture on which the popular singer might have sat and all the carpets on which she might have walked.
May 31, 1985 - New Orleans Saints were bought by Tom Benson from John Mecom for just over $70 million. After the initial 17 losing seasons, two years after Benson’s acquisition, the Saints hosted their first play-off game. All ten play-off appearances and their lone Super Bowl win happened under Benson’s ownership.
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