The matriarch of Martha Lou’s Kitchen reflects on her legacy and the future of this Holy City institution
Thirty-seven years ago, when Martha Lou Gadsden opened her namesake soul food kitchen, she was something of a pioneer. “There were no restaurants on the Eastside; they were all on the west side of town,” she says. And, what you could get wasn’t fresh: “Most of the places you went to sold canned this and canned that.” But Gadsden had a vision for something different. Namely, she wanted to make Sunday-style dinners, prepared with locally grown ingredients. “I wanted you to feel like you were at home, to have fresh veggies that were out of the garden, and I didn’t want no canned stuff or frozen stuff.”
Sound familiar? One could make a convincing argument that she predicted the farm-to-table movement that forms so much of Charleston’s current food culture. The mother of nine started selling $5 carryout, soul food dinners from her house on weekends, just around the corner from the gas station that would become Martha Lou’s Kitchen. After working at several other restaurants, including Dee Dex Snack Bar and Ladson House, where she bussed tables, she decided she wanted to do something on her own. “From there, I scraped together the money to get this little place,” she recounts. And nearly four decades in, Gadsden—who turns 90 this month—is still at the helm of this Charleston institution, although most day-to-day operations are run by two of her daughters, Debra and Ruth.
Nearly four decades in, Gadsden—who turns 90 this month—is still at the helm of this Charleston institution.
Back when she opened in 1983, Martha Lou’s Kitchen may have been one of the only restaurants in her community—but it wasn’t the only business enterprise: “Oh my God, there used to be a bunch of car dealerships around, but they have moved everything now. There’s nobody on my old street. They been gone.” With the exception of Spectrum Paint and Cone 10 studios, which closed in June, Martha Lou’s iconic salmon pink exterior, a color chosen by her children, stands quite alone. A bedrock in a fast-changing landscape, the restaurant’s reputation continued to grow over the years (thanks in no small part to Food Network stars such as Andrew Zimmern and features in The New York Times and on the Travel Channel). However, one of her greatest challenges has been retaining local patronage. “Most of my business is people from out of town.”
So much of the neighborhood, she’s noticed, is now strictly industrial. “There are no living facilities [in the restaurant’s vicinity]. They have built all around, and there’s no residential housing.” With increased commercial interest in the upper peninsula and rising property values, she herself no longer lives next door, but in North Charleston. And, despite the restaurant’s success, the most she hopes for is that the lot on which it sits isn’t sold. She continues to rent the property at the same price as when she started, and will, she says, for as long as providence allows. “God has given me the strength, and the landlord has worked with me, so that has helped out a good bit, too.”
Although Gadsden doesn’t do much of the cooking anymore—at 90 and after two knee replacements, she says she doesn’t have the same get-up-and-go—don’t be fooled: it’s still the same Martha Lou’s. The matriarch is notorious for never writing down recipes, but she assures that her children have learned her techniques and are serving the same meat-and-three menu: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, red rice, and many other comforts.
As usual, you’ll need to know fast whether you want white or dark meat, which sides, and if your meal is to stay or to go. And if you’re smart, you’ll tack on the bread pudding (the soft, doughy cobbler is warm and fragrant with cinnamon and marbled with sticky-sweet peaches). Orders are taken with a no-nonsense verve that makes you feel like you’re in good hands.
Though she’s living an admittedly quieter life now, you may occasionally find Gadsden washing up the collard greens or cutting up the cabbage at 1068 Morrison Drive. What seems certain is as long as her face adorns the exterior, Martha Lou’s Kitchen will continue to serve up a taste of home—a part of a long and rich culinary and cultural tradition, borne of perseverance and innovation. “I’ll say this,” she adds. “If the girls [my daughters] are still able to work for me, and we still have the business, we will stay there as long as we can.”