Charleston, SC

Tributes for Charleston soul food icon Martha Lou Gadsden

Libby-Jane Charleston

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Photo: Ruta Smith

Martha Lou Gadsden's life mission was to feed her community. She opened Martha Lou’s Kitchen in 1983, serving downtown Charleston wholesome Lowcountry cuisine until September 2020, when she declared, “I’m too old to get started again” after the pandemic hit hard on the iconic Morrison Drive restaurant.

Martha Lou's family and friends were devastated about her death on April 1, at the age of 91, and today the tributes continue to come for the incredible woman who had such an enormous impact on the Holy City. Chefs, writers and food experts nationwide have spoken about what made Martha Lou such a wonderful person, both inside and out of the kitchen.

Charleston native chef Amethyst Ganaway wrote for TODAY.com, " “While small in stature, Martha Lou Gadsden was a culinary giant in the city of Charleston and venerated in Southern cuisine. We are all deeply saddened by her death, but we find solace and peace knowing she lived a full life and made a huge impact on how Black low-country and Southern food and culture is viewed today. I wish I had a chance to meet and speak with her — I can only imagine the wisdom she could have imparted on me as a younger Black woman and chef who just moved back to a home that doesn’t seem like home anymore … We are forever indebted to Miss Martha Lou Gadsden and her kitchen, and she will be sorely missed but always cherished and never forgotten.”

Charleston-area chef and Gullah cuisine expert BJ Dennis wrote on social media, " Such a sweet soul and that smile, myself plus many others will always remember. 91 years old, she lived a good life. I probably spent more time in her kitchen just talking about life and getting advice, then actually sitting down and eating. My heart goes out to her family. Another legend in the community has transitioned, but her legacy will always be with us. Thank you Ms. Martha Lou for being you. I’ll miss our Doschers grocery store encounters and you asking me where them pans at I promised you!! Love always and forever.”

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Image: BJ Dennis

Kim Severson wrote in The New York Times, “It would be impossible to add up all the meals Martha Lou Gadsden cooked over her lifetime. She had to feed eight children and worked for years in other people’s restaurants. In 1983, she opened her own place in an old gas station amid a stretch of car dealerships just north of downtown Charleston, S.C. She called it Martha Lou’s Kitchen. For the next 37 years, she dished out home cooking to everyone from longshoreman to famous chefs, and became an essential figure in the preservation of Low Country cuisine.”

“She paved the way for Gullah cooks like myself … She worked all the way up to the closing of Martha Lou’s last year at the age of 90,” Kardea Brown of the Food Network’s Delicious Miss Brown wrote on Instagram. “She was 91 when she passed yesterday … I think it’s safe to say, JOB WELL DONE Miss Gadsden! The memories of Martha Lou’s and your family’s legacy will live on forever in the hearts of many! (btw … there will never be another restaurant that can top her fried chicken in Charleston!).”

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Kardea Brown Photo: Food Network

Hanna Raskin, The Post and Courier’s food critic wrote "At Martha Lou’s Kitchen, Gadsden served dishes drawn from the Lowcountry home cooking canon, including fried chicken, lima beans, okra soup, beef stew with oxtails, macaroni and collard greens."

"Her improvised chicken drew national acclaim after magazine writers started descending upon Charleston to chronicle its upscale restaurants. Chef Sean Brock, formerly of Neighborhood Dining Group, was diligent about directing media types to the distinctive squat pink building that housed Gadsden’s operation.”

Ccelebrity chef Andrew Zimmern paid tribute to Martha Lou on Twitter; he has fond memories of the time he visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in 2011 for an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods.

"Martha Lou Gadsden made food so special, so ‘of the place,’ that she in many ways defined culture in Charleston. I can still feel her hugs."

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I'm a journalist and author writing across a wide range of topics, including tech, travel, history, business/startups, relationships, beauty & fashion, British royal history, & local stories concerning Charleston, S.C (where I have a long family history on my father's side: hence my surname! ) Former HuffPost Assoc Ed, ABC TV, ATV Beijing correspondent and many more. Author of "Fatal Females." Mother of three boys: I will love them until the Statue of Liberty sits down.

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