She calls them "the ding-a-lings."
Not her funny relatives or the nosy neighbor lady down the street. It's industry endearment for the guys who drive the snowball and ice cream trucks that cruise summertime Baltimore to bring icy treats and—instead of the tinkling bells of once upon a time—incessant, mechanical renderings of Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer' to the curb outside of your house.
Many of the city's entrepreneurs started out as ding-a-lings. Alan Hirsch, who co-founded City Paper back in 1977, wasn't a ding-a-ling, but did run a poolside snowball stand. "My first stop in the food biz was selling snowballs when I was 15," said Hirsch. But Baltimore's snowball queen came late to the game.
"I grew up in Montgomery County, I didn't know what a snowball was," said Kathy McLane, 53, co-owner of Charm City Ice and purveyor of sugar sweet flavors in nearly every shade of the color wheel. "We fell into all of this by accident."
The stand she started in Pasadena 30 years ago snowballed into a full-scale ice business when she and her partners moved into the former Crown Cork & Seal warehouse in 2005.
"We began as a snowball stand, then a snowball company, and now we're an ice company," said McLane, a Ravens football zealot and partner to Vernon Geis (her longtime companion) and Jim Miller, a veteran of the local ice game well-known to customers in Glen Burnie.
Keeping up with the city's numerous ding-a-lings is no small matter, and Charm City Ice employs 30,000 square feet of freezers, tons of ice, thousands of gallons of syrup, a couple of tractor-trailers, and 20 seasonal employees, all housed beneath the O'Donnell Street overpass linking Canton with Greektown, a short and hidden stretch (once a lovers' lane, then a homeless encampment, now bordered by gentrification) across from the massive Cambridge Iron and Metal scrapyard.
"We make 600 gallons of syrup for 80 flavors a day—five pounds of sugar to each gallon—we've got six trucks on the road and supply stands" from Pasadena to Dundalk, she said, noting that sugar "is lot sweeter" than less expensive corn syrup.
Though the whole operation is called Charm City Ice, McLane and Geis market their flavors—egg custard the long-standing and undisputed champion, followed by cherry—under the Kavern label.
"Ka for Kathy," she said, as Mom and Pop as it comes. "And Vern for Vernon."
The most contentious of the flavors is Sky-Lite—that bright yet somehow pale blue "flavor" that each summer seems to go by a different name depending on what is big in popular culture. The third most popular snowball flavor, according to McLane, has been called "Smurf," "Star Wars," or "Cabbage Patch."
But others say that Sky-Lite is just Sky-Lite and it is the marshmallows that make it a "Smurf."
But don't even get McLane started on the marshmallows, which arrive in bulk nearly as hard as stale taffy.
"It's a disaster!" laughed McLane, who took on the chore for the same reason she makes her own flavors—distributors either died or went out of business.
"I break it down with a drill and simple syrup," she said, noting that $47 will get you 30 pounds of ready-to-dollop marshmallows, of which the average snowball stand will use a bucket a day.
McLane, a former kindergarten teacher, is a self-taught expert on the fabled Baltimore snowball, which goes back to the early 20th century and is regionally distinct from "snow cones" (a national and generic term), Italian ice (used in New York and New Jersey), and Italian water ice (specific to Philadelphia). Geis collects antique hand-held ice planers and Miller also keeps a pair of iron tongs used by the once common ice man, but their own technique cometh more recently.
When "Hawaiian" shaved ice came to town, many old-timers worried it would destroy the classic Baltimore snowball. But Charm City, which was going full-bore into the ice business about that time, designed their ice production to ride the shaved wave. Instead of producing the cubes of ice traditionally employed by snowball stands, Charm City specializes in uniform, 10-pound blocks of ice, along the same lines as those used by purveyors of shaved ice, making about 120,000 of them a year. Popped from the molds, they resemble a clear, frozen shoebox and slip easily into a standard shaver machine. (They do, however, still import the more traditional ice cubes from a manufacturer in Pennsylvania).
Business is booming in the summertime as the city seeks relief from the heat in a collective brain-freeze. "We work with everybody from the annual AFRAM festival to Dumbarton middle school's 8th grade dance," McClane said.
But once the mercury starts to drop, so do the sales as Baltimoreans start thinking about other stuff. "Do you know how hard it is to sell a snowball after Labor Day?" asked McLane.