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. 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.
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, and Hugh and his crew churn out a few hundred pints each day.
The flavors change with the seasons and local ingredients, including muscadines, blueberries, peaches, and chocolate. 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. 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 and can be found in stores and on numerous restaurant menus.
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.
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.