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Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore’

Where everybody knows your name.

Now that the Summer season has officially come to a close, and the joys of cider-tinged, crisp and cool Autumn are upon us, I think it’s safe to share what I spent those previous three glorious months doing: eating sugared ice out of a cup, innocently flirting with cute twenty-one-year-old proprietors and milking the pregnancy card as much as humanly possible.  Oh, yeah, and growing…..proudly and profusely!

This Summer the best place for a crazy pregnant lady such as myself and her equally-insane foodie cravings surprisingly turned out to be – you guessed it – the local snowball stand.  It’s where a gal can order her ‘Regular’ – a small egg custard – with a smile, a story and a great memory of her first pregnant Summer.  It’s a place that boasts the old-fashioned, homemade flavors of days gone by (no “SpongeBob” or “Spiderman” to be found here) as well as those mystery concoctions thought up in the ’70s that stuck to Baltimore like Old Bay Seasoning and mosquito netting to your favorite crab-eatin’ shirt (Skylite, I think, is the only flavor that actually tastes like none other than the  color blue.  We still haven’t figured out what it’s really made of; at this point, after 25 years of enjoying the mystery of it all, I’m not really sure I want to know).  As is my habit, I usually highlight establishments that offer special perks and accommodations to the food allergy crowd, but every once in a while I come across a place that is so unique, so Baltimore, so Hon that I just can’t resist.  Welcome to Walther Gardens Snow Ice. You will never forget you came.

Why?  Where else can you get a complimentary homemade pickle with your medium-sized egg custard in a Styrofoam cup? Or a free sample of the newest experimental hot sauce flavor of the week between drippy spoonfuls of strategically-layered marshmallow fluff (my personal fave is the Three Layer Yeah Baby, AKA:  Snowball Salad)? Or have a leisurely, engaging conversation on any given evening with someone who’s been an on-going customer for the past 60 or so years while sitting on a weather-aged wooden bench as the sun goes down? At this point, with all the quirky haunts we have in this great little city of neighborhoods I think I’ve found the mother lode of local ice creations.

Pickles; really?  I can’t make this shit up.

Back to the brined cucumbers  in a minute.  First – a history lesson.

Walther Gardens was founded sometime between 1880 and the beginning of the 20th century.  No joke – no one, not even the founder’s grandson, Henry “Phil” Sinsz, who runs the place today, knows exactly when the “small greenhouse  in the back” became a full-fledged neighborhood business.  The stand’s been up since around 1929 and has been serving the locals the best snowballs this side of Old Harford Rd ever since.  Sinsz’s grandfather and father (Harry and Henry, respectively) ran the fledgling business for years, providing three greenhouses full of flowers, herbs and vegetable plants to every home garden in the northeast Baltimore areas of Waltherson, Arcadia, Gardenville and Beverly Hills.  It’s a hard-to-miss place, too.  Just look for the gigantic 200-year-old pink Victorian house.  Or the shells of old greenhouses long-gone of their covers, sticking out like living skeletons from some strange plant-based Earth.  Or Phil, who wears suspenders over his stained white work shirt and always complains about what’s wrong with this country with a smile on his face and cigarette in his hand.  I call him The Jolly Curmudgeon  – and he really is, in the most endearing, shake-your-head, only-in-Baltimore kind of way.

Phil manages the plants, a wonderful array of annuals and very unique perennials, beautiful hanging vines (the Black-Eyed Susan variety is my favorite), plus veggies and herbs galore, while the “youngins'”  run the stand itself.  They would be the wonderful, yet goofy, Connor Knox and Rebecca- I’m-too-damn-preggo-brained-to-ask-for-her-last-name cute blond girl.  And no, they are not brother and sister.  Or a couple (just in case you were one of dozens to ask this Summer, or wanted to know) or Phil’s grandchildren (that one got a big, “Oh God, no!” from both of them, which, after getting to know said owner this season, makes me giggle).  Between the three of them, plus the um, interesting variety of customers that frequent the place on a daily and weekly basis, well, it makes for a pretty amusing hangout during the dog days of June, July and August.

Now, back to the pickles.

Yes, pickles.  It seems that scooping ice and pouring sugar crack into a Styrofoam cup all Summer isn’t exactly the most stimulating profession.  You need a hobby to kind of even it out.  Something else to look forward to other than the gigantic paycheck working at a snowball stand most obviously brings. Meet Connor – amateur connoisseur of the canning and pickling arts and one heck of an amusing, goofy, and very generous dude.  Connor graciously let this crazy pregnant foodie sample his homemade pickles (conveniently created in his kitchen, just next door, and stored in the stand’s back fridge) and hot sauce all throughout the season between shared comparisons of our favorite true-crime stories and serial killers (he’s working toward eventually studying criminology)  for the benefit (hopefully) of both of us.  I got my “give me something sour right now or I’ll rip your stomach out” craving of the week fulfilled and he received an honest opinion on his handcrafted goods, as only a candid, hormonally-influenced gestating wonder can provide.  Connor calls his yet-to-be branded operation Spoons and hopes to one day launch the line officially.  In the meantime, I’ve had fun being the guinea pig of such delights while hearing the hilarious “horror stories” of batches gone awry, like the failed attempt at bacon-flavored pickles, which turned out to be “…..a greasy, scary mess,” as well as the garlic salsa from hell (apparently, one must learn the difference between a bulb and a clove of garlic the hard way) – thrown away after one sample.  When Rebecca is manning, um, womanning, the stand, the stories are equally amusing, but different.  Like how she had three allergic reactions in one week and ended up in the hospital while on vacation with the same friend (prompting me to question whether or not she’s suspected said buddy has it out for her life).  Or how she has already predicted that Phil’s demise will come via the storage room ceiling crumbling down on his head one day. (“That place is falling apart!” she humorously quips between scoops). And of course there are stories about the customers themselves, like the one kid who ate a whole entire jumbo cup of marshmallow on a dare, only to have to be taken to the hospital by ambulance 15 minutes later to have his stomach pumped.

Just add pickles

The most amusing part of an evening spent at the stand, however, is Mr. Sinsz himself.  It starts with a grumpily enthusiastic “There she is!” and usually weaves its way into a casual discussion about what’s wrong with everything in Baltimore City, the State of Maryland, and “this damn country” as a whole,  usually ending in with the phrase, “all gone to hell” said in the most jolly way possible.  Long-time customer and local resident, Joan Ford, happily banters between spoonfuls of ice, while sharing stories of Moving Nights gone by, where the local officers didn’t care how much she moved her neighbors porch furniture around as long as she “put it back by the end of the evening,” along with wistful tales of the City College bridge, where she’d meet potential suitors for date nights when she was a young woman. In other words, “The Good Old Days” before we “let traditions go” including “a lot of good that we shouldn’t change.”  I have to agree, wholeheartedly, which is why I’m sad to learn that Phil, who has been telling the neighborhood that he’s going to the sell the business for the last seven years or so, is apparently going through with it after the Christmas tree selling season this Winter.

“Bullshit.”  I replied.  “No!”  He said with a laugh, “I’m serious this time!” and sadly, I think he really is.

Connor is hoping that whoever does buy the place plans to keep the stand open to lease. He’d like to use it as his first real rental space, scooping snowballs and selling his branded jarred goods by day, and trying not to blow up his kitchen making the stuff in the evenings.  I suggested they use the stand this last Winter season to sell cider and hot chocolate so potential buyers see how much this little local place means to the community.  Phil, whose wife used to help run the stand during the holidays, is determined to retire after Christmas, laying  to rest a neighborhood staple that’s, though “not what it used to be” due to lack of help and the appearance of huge home and garden chains like Home Depot and Lowes, is much beloved by this tight-knit Northeast Baltimore community, nonetheless.  Being that in the all the years I’ve been buying plants and snowballs I’ve never actually seen Mrs. Sinsz I’m starting to suspect he’s got her buried somewhere under the begonias and wild mint and is hoping to save his hide before we all find him out.  It’s a theory.  An amusing one.  Just like the memory that Walther Gardens may become next year.  I’m crossing my pickle- and custard-scented fingers and hoping that, for once, some wise, nostalgic soul will listen to Ms. Ford and not let this particular tradition go, like so many have before.

With fluff and love,

Cellina – The Hopeful Foodie.

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