The Gritty South

By  |  May 6, 2020

Music City can claim a great chocolate factory.


 

Scott Witherow doesn’t look like he eats a lot of chocolate. He’s a wiry young man with pale skin and dark eyes. Born in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1978, and raised between Columbia and downtown Franklin (where, as a boy, he frequented the peanut and candy counter at Gray’s drugstore on Main Street before it shut down), Witherow is, nonetheless, obsessed with chocolate.

The day I met him, at the bar to talk candy, he was wearing a flannel shirt, a baseball cap, and jeans. We see a lot of that around Nashville. Except usually the skinny kid with hungry eyes wants to make hit records. Witherow wants to make hit chocolate.

East Nashville, on the edgier side of the Cumberland River, is home to Witherow’s company, Olive and Sinclair, and is the hangout of hip folk like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings and The Gousters. Yeah, there’s a lot of obvious charm—nineteenth-century houses sick-sweet with gingerbread touches; troops of hula-hoopers holding spontaneous hoop-ins; and marauding bands of cyclists on bikes torch-welded into visual absurdities—but, for now, its charm is unvarnished.

Witherow’s sixteen-hundred-square-foot chocolate factory (two men, three women) fits right in. It’s plain and simple and slightly weird in a way that intrigues: Small, round windows the size and shape of portholes provide light that falls on the long narrow room—just big enough for the machinery, pallets of cacao beans in burlap sacks, and stainless-steel work tables.

In the center of the gritty South, Witherow’s making gritty chocolate, literally. Chocolate nibs, salt crystals, and coarse-ground pepper are used to achieve a rough texture beloved by many Music City tongues.

While making his signature bars—67% Dark; 75% Dark; Salt & Pepper; Sea Salted; Double Chocolate Nibs; Coffee; and one-off special-edition roasts—Witherow winnows, grinds, conches, holds, tempers, molds, trims, hand-finishes (last sprinklings of salt, nibs, or pepper), and hand-wraps about five hundred bars a day.

“I’m one of the few, if not the only, ‘beans-to-bar’ artisan chocolate makers in the South,” states Witherow. And who else is making chocolate-covered dried corn? And talking to the folks who stone-grind grits to figure out new ways to stone-grind in his factory?

 

Unlike many artisan chocolatiers who feature beans from a single place, Witherow specializes in dual-origin chocolate. He’ll blend beans from Ghana and the Dominican Republic to optimize the flavors. The mixing of two kinds of beans, as opposed to making a big deal of one kind, can be viewed as culinary miscegenation, all the more powerful because his chocolate tastes so good.

The words SOUTHERN ARTISAN CHOCOLATE appear on the wrapper. The Southern part is not mere geography. “I make my chocolate with brown sugar. I’m the only one in the world making chocolate with brown sugar. That’s Southern,” says Witherow.

And deepest South of all may be the masterpiece chocolate he’s developing called “buttermilk white.” He allowed me a test-taste: It’s tangy and peppery and as regional as skillet cornbread.

From buttermilk to bourbon to salt peanuts, he’s playing with traditional flavors—even as his bars reflect the realities of change in Dixie.

This winter, Witherow celebrated the growing Hispanic population in Nashville by creating a bar flavored with cinnamon and chili peppers, called Mexican Style Cinn-Chili.

His chocolates have become a catalyst in the Nashville food world. Across the river, the folks at Yazoo brewery have incorporated it in some of their beer. The Patterson House, a retro cocktail boîte complete with velvet drapes, is employing Witherow’s locally roasted, small-batch nibs in a cocktail. Bongo Java, a local coffee roaster, provides the coffee beans used in the coffee-and-chocolate bar. Repurposed Olive and Sinclair cacao shells become mulch for local gardeners.

Witherow is also making a mark in the city’s art scene. He’s teamed up with the same folk who designed his logo and candy wrappers, Anderson Design Group and the letterpress-shop Isle of Printing (both of Nashville), to create posters and what he calls “Chocolart,” a series of art prints wrapped around various Olive and Sinclair chocolate bars.

The marketing of Southern food has provoked the creation of many memorable images—some quite disturbing. The brown swimmers and diners and swans that grace the posters touting Olive and Sinclair’s chocolates are notably serene.

 

Both the chocolate and posters at the Olive and Sinclair factory are worth the journey.

 

Watch an Oxford American film on Olive and Sinclair.

 


Recipe for Chocolate Communion
by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams

Serves 50

Dark chocolate and a thimble-full of bourbon—dessert couldn’t be simpler or more elegant. We invented this for a party when we were doing all the cooking and expecting more than a hundred guests. On that occasion we spread brown butcher paper down the center of our library table and served several varieties of chocolate. Communion cups can be purchased in large quantity for a small price, typically a hundred cups for less than five dollars. If you can’t find disposable communion cups, small Dixie cups could work.

The National Institute of Health is currently researching the health benefits of dark chocolate. Some theorize that it could possibly have a positive impact in helping folks recover from, or not develop, a variety of maladies from high blood pressure and diabetes to certain cancers. Dr. Luc Djoussé of Harvard Medical School has found an overall drop in blood pressure among people who eat dark chocolate, with more benefit to those who already have high blood pressure. Milk chocolate and white chocolate are not associated with health benefits. Neither is bourbon. But we like it, especially with chocolate.

1 (750-ml) bottle of bourbon
24 ounces dark chocolate, broken into shards

Give each guest a communion cup full of bourbon, then pass around a tray of chocolate.

Note: We recommend Belle Meade bourbon and Olive and Sinclair chocolate when you serve Chocolate Communion. The two horses on the bourbon label remind us of Bob Green, the African American man who, both before and after Emancipation, bred the ancestors of a good many of the horses that have won the Kentucky Derby on a plantation called Belle Meade. If you can’t get Olive and Sinclair chocolate, Walmart carries the Green & Black’s brand of dark chocolate.

Recipe published in Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family, by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams.


“The Gritty South” was originally published in the Oxford American’s Spring 2010 Southern Food issue, guest edited by John T. Edge.


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Alice Randall is the author of three novels (Rebel Yell, The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin, and The Queen of Spades) and a bunch of country songs. Her dining table sits eighteen, and she fills it up often. She lives in Nashville with her husband.

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