Childhood food memories are ubiquitous, and for good reason. At an age where a sense of control over one's experience can otherwise feel limited, gratifying sensory stimulation—taste, smell, sight, sometimes touch, sometimes sound, sometimes all at once—is sure to breed nostalgia.
But what about a childhood food crush? Not quite a memory of eating, but rather a memory of a food-infatuation that's significant only because it's remained unfulfilled for so many decades?
I wonder aloud to my partner, Nate, if I'm alone in having one of these. We’re scouring our neighborhood for Hostess Sno Balls.
"No," says Nate. "Never happened to me. I ate everything."
You might remember Hostess Sno Balls if you, like me, clocked every pair you ever passed. Lining the shelves of the checkout line at King Kullen while you helped your dad pack a brown paper bag with bunches of spinach so limp, surely they must’ve been mocking you. Tucked away in the interstices of a gas station you passed through on an endless road trip. Behind the counter of a convenience store you ducked into, in search of quarters, so you could hit “start” on your last load at the laundromat across the street.
For the uninitiated, Sno Balls are pillowy semi-spheres of chocolate cake filled with creamy white frosting, coated in marshmallow, and rolled around in flaked coconut. Sometimes they're white, like an actual snowball—but more often, you'll see the fluorescent pink ones, bright and plush as something a Lisa Frank unicorn might toss to another unicorn, who in turn might spear it playfully with a glitter-covered horn. (“Food dye,” says Nate darkly, when I show him a photo.) To my young eye, having inspected several packages at close range, Sno Balls appeared to be desire incarnate. They reeled me in with their dramatic flair and soft, cakey composition, and they kept me interested with the promise of multiple types of frosting.
So, why did I never try one? When I ask my parents if they recall telling me that I couldn't, they profess ignorance. "Hm. Doesn't sound like us," they say. And I suppose it doesn’t. These are the people who looked on passively as I ate an entire package of ramen, plus a chocolate-covered cherry, for breakfast every day in my middle school years.
Hostess did declare bankruptcy and briefly stopped producing Sno Balls in 2012—“But due to widespread consumer outcry, this was followed by the ‘Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever,’ when the brand was revived and our beloved product returned to store shelves in 2013,” Keith Peterfeso, Hostess’ Brand Director for All Day Snacking (yes, real title), writes to me.
So it seems more plausible—especially when one (me, typing iPhone notes, on the subway) factors in the intervening years of my independent adulthood—that this abstinence has been largely self-imposed. That I, a child, then teen, then adult who draws so much comfort and joy from food, subconsciously constructed a sort of personal Wuthering Heights scenario. (I’m Catherine Earnshaw, the Sno Balls are Heathcliff, and our timing’s never been quite right—keep up!) Perhaps I needed some edible Chimera to propel me forward in my pursuit of food exploration, until I found my calling (more chocolate cakes). Or perhaps, like any other unrealized crush, it has ebbed and flowed in the background of my psyche over time, only resurfacing when the universe sends me reminders.
It does feel fitting that, when I finally decide it’s time to try these cakes, I’m unable to find a single package in any of the grocery stores I comb. It’s the eve of my 28th birthday, and I’d been hoping to hold the tasting on the date itself—but what’s a few more days, after a lifetime? I place an online order for what looks like two Sno Balls, but turns out to be two dozen. (The hot pink variety.)
It doesn’t occur to me until they arrive that there’s a chance I’ll hate them. I make and eat all sorts of baked goods for my job, now. It’s possible these ones won’t blow me away like they absolutely would’ve two decades ago, when I would ration myself one Reese’s cup a day from a hidden two-pound sack under my bed. (Siblings, if you're reading this: keep out.)
But, as I gingerly poke one of the Sno Ball's springy, marshmallowy exterior, I’m reminded of something a friend told me a few years ago, right after I made a seemingly impossible decision: “Now, you can finally start enjoying your life.” She wasn’t referring to a stand-off with a Hostess cake, but I figure all good advice is transferable.
The Sno Ball’s marshmallow coat springs back at me, albeit a little more slowly than you’d imagine. I tear into it. At first bite, it’s pretty satisfying—the chocolate cake is lightly salty, and drier than I’d expected. The coconut flakes are unsweetened, aiding in the sugar-balance. If I had one point of constructive criticism, it’d be about the marshmallow-to-cream-filling ratio. (I’m team More Cream Filling, always.)
And it feels both significant and utterly meaningless at the same time. Will I ever again delay pursuit of something little that might make me happy? Of course. Will everything that might bring me joy change my life? Of course not.
“Want one?” I ask Nate. “I’ve got 23 extras.”
“I’m… good.” he says.
More for me. I grab a second Sno Ball, flip it over, and jab a spoon right into its center, to eat the cream filling first.