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I wanted to start this story with cows. Meet the cows. Milk the cows. Then follow the milk to where it’s made into ice cream or gelato, and then see it end up in a bowl.
But cows, local as they might be, are not nearly as interesting as spending a morning hanging out with Hugh Balthrop in the quintessentially Southern town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Hugh hails from Washington, DC, where he owned an art gallery and met his wife. Married in 1999, the Balthrops first lived in Chicago where his wife grew up. But she wanted to serve the community where she had spent summers with her grandparents. So in 2000, the couple moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the population is just under 20,000.
Clarksdale has a rich history in the Civil Rights Movement and blues music. Just 90 minutes from Memphis, Clarksdale is a sleepy town. It’s surrounded by corn and sorghum fields, but it’s studded with a few pockets of rich creativity that warrant your attention.
South of the historic crossroads on Desoto Avenue is a line of industrial buildings. Once you cross over the railroad tracks, on the back side of the Chamber of Commerce building stands a bank of business-incubator spaces. The last door has a small but expertly crafted logo. You have arrived at Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Company headquarters.
The space is austere and immaculately clean, as a food production kitchen should be. But there are telltale signs that reveal Hugh’s personality and how it ekes into his product. Ingredients are neatly stacked on wire shelving. The desk is typical in its organized disorganization. Sticky notes, business cards, cookbooks, and notes are neatly scattered for quick reference. Work is done at this desk. It’s not just for show. Music fills the space over the hum of the gelato machine.
On the north wall, dozens of strings of flavor labels stream down from where they are pinned: Banana Pudding, Gravel Road, Pistachio, Whiskey Pecan — the flavors run the gamut from classic to inventive Southern.
When he first moved to Clarksdale, Hugh worked as a hospital manager. He then spent time as Mr. Mom taking care of their three “Delta babies.” Hugh started out making ice cream for his kids, now 5, 8, and 11 years old. That progressed to making it for friends. A weekend ice cream course at Penn State put him on the road from ice cream enthusiast to professional. He later studied with gelato master Maria Coassin.
Ice cream and gelato are both custards that are churned while freezing. Gelato is more dense and smooth. It has less butterfat and less air incorporated in the churning process. Sorbet is a frozen mixture of fruit juice or purée. Hugh makes them all, but gelato is the main product.
In the corner of the workspace is a huge gelato machine. The machine churns 16 quarts in a mere 16 minutes. Flavorings are added and the frozen concoctions are hand-packed and crated in one of several freezers. Going through 50 gallons of milk from Brown Dairy Farm in Oxford, Mississippi, more than 30 gallons of cream, and 50 pounds of sugar each week, Hugh and his team — two young men named Donald and Christian — create a few hundred pints each day.
The flavors change with the seasons and local fruits. Muscadines come from Woodson Ridge Farms. Blueberries come from Peggy’s Farm. Peaches come from McCullough Orchards. Chocolate is from a roaster in Missouri. Hugh quickly got bored with chocolate, vanilla, and cookie-dough flavors, so he is constantly inventing new ones.
Miss Mary’s Pound Cake is made with a lemon pound cake made famous by a local retired teacher. Benton’s Tennessee bacon adds smoke and saltiness to the Maple Bacon Gelato. King Cake Gelato was a hit last year for Mardi Gras. But it’s the Gravel Road (made with salty caramel with butter-roasted Delta pecans and a nod to the area where it’s produced) that is the best-selling favorite.
This past year, you’ve probably seen Sweet Magnolia pop up on restaurant menus and at special events. Hugh comes to Memphis a few times each week and crafts custom flavors for the food venues that focus on local. Sweet Grass and Next Door serve his Honey Bourbon Gelato. He worked out the kinks to making Spumoni for Amerigo (the pistachio, chocolate, and strawberry flavors are all kept in separate layers). Southward serves Hugh’s Bourbon Maraschino Cherry and Nutella flavors. Jim’s Place likes the Scuppernong and Blackberry Sorbets in the summer.
Hugh still likes the Italian classics, pistachio and lemon custard, but he tastes them all “for quality assurance.” He doesn’t look like he eats a lot of ice cream, but I suspect the gym weights and workout mat in the corner of the factory are responsible for helping him keep what could be a lot of calories in check.
Not everything works right off the bat. Honey lavender has been nixed from the flavor roster. Caramel took a few tries to get the process right. Adjustments have to be made based on the sweetness and ripeness of the fruit. Hugh’s goal is a well-balanced recipe. The chocolate is a good example. The flavor is rich and dark (from 70% cacao dark chocolate). There’s sweetness, but you taste chocolate, not just sugar, and that’s the way it should be.
Salty Caramel, Lemon Drop, Orange Cream, Delta Buttered Pecan, Sweet Potato with Roasted Marshmallow, Watermelon, and Sweet Tea — the flavor list is a taste tour of the South.
After a tour of the “factory” and a taste of the dark chocolate gelato, Hugh takes me along to make a delivery. In addition to several Memphis groceries, you can find Sweet Magnolia just down the road from the ice cream factory at the Shack Up Inn. This iconic venue for blues musicians is an eclectic mix of sharecropper shacks and cotton gin turned into a musical venue and hotel. Memorabilia and history cover the walls, and Sweet Magnolia fills the freezer.
Keeping up with demand is a six-day-a-week job. Hugh is the marketing director, event host, chief scooper, recipe developer, and delivery driver. In rare spare moments, he thinks about getting a food truck or a retail space, but that’s likely a bit further down the road.
The pace in the “factory” is efficiently humming along. There’s time to talk, but the order lists on the whiteboard indicate that it’s time to go so they can all get back to work. The locally crafted ice cream and gelato from Clarksdale is bound for Cleveland, Rolling Fork, New Albany, Oxford, Water Valley, and Memphis. It’s a shame that Hugh can’t put the train tracks in the back parking lot to work to roll product to all corners of the Delta.
Sometimes it takes someone who’s “not from ‘round here” to see a niche that needs to be filled and to step up quality from the way it’s always been to the best it can be. Hugh has made a home for his family in the Delta and has crafted a product that reminds us that even something as simple as ice cream can be a draw — to a place, to a person, to a table.
Find Sweet Magnolia by the pint in Memphis at:
High Point Grocery, 469 High Point Terrace
Miss Cordelia’s Grocery, 737 Harbor Bend Road
Square Beans Coffee, 103 N. Center Street, Collierville
Look for Sweet Magnolia on the menu at:
Amerigo, 1239 Ridgeway Road
Next Door, 937 S. Cooper Street
Southward Fare and Libations, 6150 Poplar Avenue #122
Sweet Grass, 937 S. Cooper Street