Cream of the crop
Clarksdale’s Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Co. serves up homegrown Delta delight by the bucket
Story by GALEN HOLLEY
Photos by GALEN HOLLEY & Hugh Balthrop
Hugh Balthrop’s ice cream is a spoonful of Mississippi. From gelato salty pecan, with nuts harvested from Tutwiler, to a sorbet made with Grenada berries, Balthrop’s frozen creations offer a tantalizing taste of the Magnolia State. Thus the name: Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Company. On a Friday afternoon, Balthrop is preparing an order for actor Morgan Freeman. The Academy Award winner and Clarksdale resident is catering an event in town later this evening. “He wants salty caramel layered over roasted pecan,” says Balthrop. “The caterers are going to layer them in Mason jars.” Balthrop is transferring gallons of sweet, whole milk from a dolly into a cooler. The milk is from Billy Ray Brown’s farm in Tula, near Oxford. Brown is the son of the late writer Larry Brown and his product is featured, among other places, at Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, named after his daddy’s book "Big Bad Love."
Billy Ray’s milk, along with eggs out of Greenwood, is the base ingredient in Balthrop’s gelato. It’s not ice cream, exactly. Gelato is an Italian-style ice cream. It’s lower in butter fat than regular ice cream. It doesn’t have air pumped into it. It’s just pure, intense flavor. “Ice cream is fun. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of it,” says Balthrop, as he adjusts the temperature on the cooler. Balthrop works inside a big, open space that the Clarksdale-Cahoma Chamber of Commerce made available. It’s an incubator space for start-up small businesses. He has his computer, a cooler, a freezer, a mixer and an upright gelato maker. He works efficiently, cleanly and quickly. He works in small quantities, for specialty orders. On the wall are tags depicting the flavors Balthrop is either producing or experimenting with, all of them produced from local, home-grown ingredients. There’s Mrs. Mary’s Pound Cake, which Balthrop makes with bits of cake from a local matriarch; and Whiskey Pecan, for which he favors Old Charter bourbon. The tags read like a dessert menu from a local fish and steak house. There’s banana pudding, muscadine and even maple bacon and sweet potato with roasted marshmallow. Then there are the sorbets, like mango coconut.
Creative niche Gelato is an innovative outlet for Balthrop. He used to owned an art gallery in Washington D.C., but moved to Clarksdale because his wife, an OB/GYN, wanted to practice medicine on her home soil. Balthrop was exercising his creative muscles in the kitchen while staying home with their three children. His creativity eventually got too big for the home kitchen. You won’t find Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream on the shelves at major supermarkets but if you patronize the right places — small, locally owned places, especially near Clarksdale — it won’t be hard to find. “Hugh’s product fits perfectly with what we’re about here,” says Hayden Hall, owner of Oxbow Restaurant and Catering in Clarksdale. “He’s local and sustainable. He uses local ingredients and he’s committed to the local economy. We don’t carry a lot of sweets but we carry Hugh because he’s such a good, local citizen.”
In the late afternoon, Balthrop delivers to a row of shacks converted to hotel rooms. Inside the main cabin, players from all over the U.S. are gathered in a circle, jamming in a harmonica session. A neophyte can practically see Robert Johnson signing on the dotted line, selling his soul to the devil. In the gift shop, just beside the main stage, owner Guy Malvezzi speaks well of Balthrop. “Hugh makes perfect sense with our business here,” said Malvezzi, tapping his fingers on the counter to the beat of the drums and harmonica. “He’s homegrown. He’s a good man. People love his ice cream, man, even in the winter. We sell a lot of it.”
Back at the warehouse, Balthrop transfers half pints of gelato from the freezer to the cooler, ready for transport. “I’m just evolving and creating man, always thinking of new flavors, new things to do; that’s the way I live,” he says. Two doors over, Economic Development Director Tanna Pittman Vassel is excited about Balthrop’s progress. “He’s been a perfect model for the type of locally-owned business we’re trying to cultivate,” said Vassel. “He’s patronizing local farmers, he’s invested in the local economy, he’s committed to seeing this city grow.” Balthrop takes a break and listens to Otis Redding on his computer. “I guess it’s the art background. I just love to create,” he says. “I love making delicious things that I think my children would like.”
Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream is sold in Memphis, in the Harbor Town area at Miss Cordelia's Market and in Collierville, MS, at Square Beans Coffee Shop.