There’s not much to say about “raspaos,” universally known to English-speaking countries as shaved ice or snow cones, other than the fact that these icy slices of the highest clouds from heaven are the best thing to happen in the history of your lifetime if you are out and about on a sunny day and are looking for a tasty treat to quench your thirst. The raspao has been a staple of Panamanian culture for as long as anyone can remember, a street purchase that goes hand in hand with the popsicle as the go-to solutions for when you’re out in the concrete jungle and need a power-up. In fact, the best way to describe the raspao in as less word as possible is exactly that: a power-up. If I were walking down a street beating up thugs that are all eerily dressed the same and rendered in 8-bit sprites, I would gladly pick up a huge, pixelated raspao off the ground and gobble it down like nobody’s business, taking advantage of the seconds of blinking that are part of the glitch in these cartridge-based games to relax and let the raspao power replenish my health bar.
Gamer geek-out aside, there’s no official story behind the origins of the raspao, but asking my elders (namely family members over 50 years old and their friends), they tell me that the snow cone was introduced into the Panamanian street food menu as an American influence, perhaps coming straight from within the deepest corners of the former Panama Canal Zone. As the story goes, and this is entirely hearsay, back in World War II, Panama was used as a strategic point to have battle fleets pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in order to hit Europe from the east. Anyway, the humidity expected from a country as close to the equator as Panama cause great turmoil amongst the troops, and so, ice cream parlors were popular in the day. As you would expect, snow cones were also sold in these establishments, perhaps out of Hawaiian influence. With time, the treat passed over the fences of the Panama Canal Zone and onto the rest of the country, but as Panamanians we always like to put our own stamp in whatever we adopt… this led to the birth of the raspao.
If you ask Wikipedia about raspaos, or snowcones, it will say the following:
Samuel Bert of Dallas sold shaved ice at the State Fair of Texas in 1919, and he invented a snow cone-making machine in 1920. Bert was a fixture at the State Fair, selling his snow cones there (and selling his machines world-wide) until his death in 1984.
In 1934, inventor Ernest Hansen patented the first known “ice block shaver” in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was inspired to create a more refined and hygienic version of the popular Italian ice sold from push-carts in the city. His wife Mary created many flavors of fresh syrups to flavor his finely shaved artificial “snow”. “Sno balls” have been popular in New Orleans ever since. Hansen continued work at the original Hansen’s Sno-Bliz in Uptown New Orleans on Tchoupitoulas Street through 2005, although his granddaughter, Ashley Hansen, has taken over much of the workload. Mrs. Hansen died in late 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina and Mr. Hansen died in March 2006.
There are differences between a New Orleans “Sno Ball” and a “Snow Cone.” A Snow Cone consists of hard, crunchy, grated ice and moderate amounts of syrup. Sno Balls are made from shaved ice the consistency of snow, with much more syrup, and are eaten with a straw and spoon.
Usually, the snow cones are sold at stadiums and coliseums, and by ice cream vans or by car peddlers at parks. In New Orleans, there are “sno ball stands” located in neighborhoods throughout the city. Snow cones are crushed either by hand or with specialized ice-crushing machines.
The Panamanian snow cone is of the “by hand” variety, and served on what could be best described as water cooler cups with a complimentary straw. The syrup used to give the snow cone its flavor can come from both artificial sweeteners or straight from the fruits that make the flavors; no matter which method your preffered raspadero uses, you can count on them costing $.25 cents per snow cone. You can add some delicious, sweetened milk for an extra nickel, but the maple syrup can be added for free if the vendor has it. Some vendors even has marshmallow dressing, if the sugar explosion contained within the raspao itself wasn’t enough. There are as many flavors as there are people on this green Earth, and if you happen to run into a nice vendor he’ll let you mix and match flavors for kicks.
These street vendors, strolling their carts all across town as early as 8AM onto the midnight hour, are all independent businessmen who work hard every day to bring you cheap, delicious goods. In comparison, the corporate version of the snow cone is represented in Panama by the Sno Biz company; shortly after the year 2000, several of these snow cone/ice cream shops magically spawned across Panama City, offering the biggest variety of flavors for your snow cone. The catch is that some shaved ice showered with two flavors and sweetened milk in a small cup would ring you up $1.25. I’m all up for progress, but I think saying that $1.25 for a cup of shaved ice is a little fucking steep considering I could walk out of my apartment and get the same (if not better) vanilla/mint snow cone for thirty cents. What’s better is that chances are I’ll get a good conversation with the nice man selling me the raspao while I’m at it. Well, will I be a monkey’s nutsack.
Raspao vendors are amongst the many unsung heroes of our metropolis, and people should celebrate their existence more. A couple of years ago, the Mayor of Panama City Juan Carlos Navarro offered the raspao vendors that work around San Felipe/Casco Viejo the chance to have their carts repaired and painted by some of Panama’s best up-and-coming painters. The results can be seen to this day, and if you happen to be walking around the beautiful sites of Casco Antiguo you’ll be sure to see one of these carts being pushed by their owners. When you do, do yourself a favor and buy a raspao when you see them… your Panamanian experience will not be complete until you do!