By D.R.E. James
Let’s be 100% honest. If Charleston’s current culinary scene is a low hanging loquat that every ravenous soul from New Canaan to New Delhi is clambering to snatch and devour, then Black women are the roots of that tree.
Their blueprint has been smuggled from kitchens to help construct a palatial abode on the world’s foodscape. Whether they were “free” like Sally Seymour and her daughter Eliza Lee, fattening Charleston’s elite with elegant Charlotte Russes or slaves serving their masters ladles of cooter soup, it all goes back to a Black woman.
They put their hearts and souls into hearth and stoves, like alchemists concocting things they were exclusively cognizant of and the rest of us to likely to never fully figure out.
Martha Lou is a true materfamilias. She’s an O.G. and by that I mean, “Original Gastronome”. She’s to the Holy City what Mademoiselle Leah Chase is to The Big Easy, Edna Lewis-esque in significance.
For years, Mrs. Gadsden sprinkled and stirred her culinary wisdom into bygone Black restaurants. She’s cracked the Jemima Code with a cast iron skillet, and tossed the “mammy” archetype into the abyss of history, pursuing her own endeavor.
She’d only made $10 on the grand opening, selling hot dogs and soda. Sooner, rather than later, gears were switched and the menu started to look like your granny’s kitchen table on a beautiful Sunday after service- the kind of food that hugs you. For three decades and counting Queen Martha Lou has been chugging along like a locomotive on tracks greased with lard, turning her itty-bitty pink palace, in all its flea market-chic resplendence into an institution to behold.
D.R.E. James: WHAT’S YOUR FIRST MEMORY IN THE KITCHEN?
Martha Lou: My grandmother raised my siblings and I. She did all of the cooking. I just remember peeling potatoes and shelling beans and peas, but I always observed.
D.R.E.: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST RESTAURANT JOB?
Martha Lou: I started off working at the Ladson House on President Street. It was the most important restaurant in the city for Black folks back then along with Brook’s Restaurant. I didn’t do any cooking there, though. I was a waitress and a barmaid. I later went over to Jesse Junior’s which used to be Dee Dex Snack Bar. I helped them opened that place up and stayed there through the 70’s and 80’s until I opened my own place up.
D.R.E.: DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST INTEGRATED DINING EXPERIENCE IN CHARLESTON?
Martha Lou: I sure can. It was Woolworth’s on King Street. I used to go there and get sandwiches and things like that. Y’all youngins got it good these days. We came up rough! I remember being on the city bus and some drivers would let you sit up in the front until a white person got on, and they’d shoo you to the back like a chicken. In those days we had to use the side door on Market Street and sit upstairs when we went to watch movies at Riviera Theater. I remember sneaking to drink water from the WHITES ONLY fountain, to see if taste better, come to find out, it taste just like water from the COLORED fountain! (Laughs)
D.R.E.: NOT ONLY ARE YOU BLACK, YOU’RE A WOMAN AND AN ENTREPRENEUR. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE INITIAL CHALLENGES OPENING UP MARTHA LOU’S KITCHEN?
Martha Lou: When I first started, it was a struggle. It was definitely not peaches and cream, but I did what I had to do the keep the doors open. I’m thankful that I had a fair landlord that hasn’t raised my rent in 35 years. Things started to change for me in the early 90’s. I started getting recognition on television shows, newspapers and magazines. A lot of attention from tourists and out-of-towners.
D.R.E.: IS SOUL FOOD AND HOME COOKING ONE IN THE SAME?
Martha Lou: To me, home cooking means using fresh produce. Most restaurants are serving canned “this” and frozen “that”. I get my collards once a week from a farm, I get my veggies from a garden. My yams come from a farmer in Conway. That’s home cooking, and what I cooked at home is soul food. I just brought it into a restaurant. You don’t need salt and pepper when you come to Martha Lou’s and you leave satisfied. That’s home cooking.
D.R.E.: CAN I GET YOU TO ADMIT THAT YOU FRY THE BEST CHICKEN?
Martha Lou: (Laughs) That’s what they say.
D.R.E.: PAN FRIED OR DEEP FRIED?
Martha Lou: Well, at home I like to pan fry my chicken, but at the restaurant it’s always deep fried. But you see, there’s a difference in what kind of grease you fry your chicken in. I like my peanut oil.
D.R.E.: YOU HAVE EIGHT CHILDREN, FOUR SONS AND FOUR DAUGHTERS. WHICH ONE OF YOUR DAUGHTERS COME THE CLOSEST TO YOUR SKILLS?
Martha Lou: Oh boy. Well, they all do pretty good (Laughs). There are usually two of them there at restaurant at a time. What one doesn’t do, the other does.
D.R.E.: IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DON’T WRITE DOWN ANY RECIPES?
Martha Lou: Oh no. Never! I haven’t written down any recipes ever. People always ask for my recipes, especially for my fried chicken and I give them an overview, but I don’t measure anything. All my stuff, I do by doing.
D.R.E.: YOU WERE COOKING LIMA BEANS, COLLARDS, CHITTERLINGS, NECKBONES, HAMHOCKS AND THAT SORT OF THING BEFORE IT BECAME EN VOGUE. WHAT’S YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE POPULARITY OF THOSE THINGS NOW?
Martha Lou: That ain’t nothing new to us! We’ve been cooking with pigtail, ham hocks and stuff like that. We didn’t have much of a choice. These young folks are just now starting to catch on.
D.R.E.: YOUR RESTAURANT IS IN A DISTRICT CALLED NOMO (North of Morrison) THERE ARE HIGH RISE CONDOS GOING UP ALL AROUND YOU.HOW HAS THIS AREA CHANGED SINCE YOU’VE BEEN HERE?
Martha Lou: NoMo? I had no idea they were calling this area NoMo. Back when I first started here, there was nothing on the Eastside. You have to go over the Westside to go the good restaurants and clubs. That’s why I really wanted to starting something over here. There was nothing.
D.R.E.: HOW DO YOU FEEL CHARLESTON WILL LOOK LIKE IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS?
Martha Lou: Well, it’s already changed tremendously. You go on King Street and it’s all restaurants, no more furniture stores and things like that. Restaurants have taken over. Go up the street, there’s two or three of them, and three or four around the corner from that, and two or three behind those. Across from where I’m at used to be car dealerships, now there are restaurants there. People with money are moving here, they’re tearing the public housing, building more condominiums and more restaurants.