A Charleston icon, Gadsden comforted us with her fried chicken, lima beans, and unforgettable hospitality.
Martha Lou Gadsden, a pioneer for Black chefs and luminary of the Charleston dining scene passed away at age 91 this week leaving behind an astounding legacy of cooking that became canon to Southern food culture. Her namesake restaurant, Martha Lou’s Kitchen, operated for 37 years serving the city’s best fried chicken to devotees who regularly traveled in for a fix of her peppery, plump, and smoky lima beans, thicker-than-usual okra soup, and sweet tableside service provided by her daughters.
In remembrance, we dug up an interview from our archives with Mrs. Gadsden reminiscing on her 30+ years sharing legendary soul food and incomparable Southern hospitality with our community.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS?
I started working as a bus girl, then became a waitress. I have eight kids who were all born in the 50s, so I had to cook at home. I started cooking for a friend in 1974 and then decided that if I could do that, I could try my hand at it. My grands worked here in the beginning and now three of my daughters work here. We have had to guess a lot about what will work, but we have always cooked with fresh food. We cook so that it feels like a family Sunday dinner.
WHAT’S CHANGED THE MOST IN THE THIRTY PLUS YEARS OF MARTHA LOU’S?
We used to have people who came in everyday, but now they are all retired. I never dreamed I would be here this long, but things have really picked up in the last 4 or 5 years. All the word of mouth and publicity from magazines and TV has brought more people in.
WHO HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE CUSTOMER?
Sean Brock brought in Andrew Zimmern. He brings lots of customers and chefs from around the world in to me.
WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST TO NORTHERNERS, IF THEY HAVE NEVER HAD SOUTHERN FOOD?
I don’t tell anyone what to order! Most everyone orders chicken. We give samples—especially of vegetables, like the rutabagas and collards. We let them try the chicken, pork chops, and fish…and then they usually order one of everything.
“We call it ‘kitchen’ so people feel at home. You don’t always know what is what in the restaurant business.” –Martha Lou Gadsden