Fresh Ingredients and a Little Sugar in the Cornbread Have Made Martha Lou’s Kitchen a Charleston Destination
Martha Lou Gadsden’s cooking skills aren’t the product of culinary school, or even a weathered, worn-in family cookbook. The Charleston native is completely self-taught. She had children to feed—nine, in fact—and putting food on the table was a necessity.
“I taught myself by doing. I had to feed all those children,” she says. “I had to learn to cook.”
Gadsden describes her style of cooking as “a dab of this and a dab of that.” She doesn’t write down recipes; she’s only ever made what she thinks would taste good. Her simple, homey dishes taste good to others too—take it from the hordes of patrons who sign the guest book at Martha Lou’s Kitchen every day, traveling from far and wide for a bite of seasoned-to-the-bone fried chicken or (as the team at Martha Lou’s puts it) “roll-your-eyes-it's-so-good” mac and cheese.
In the early days, Gadsden supported her family by working at a number of Charleston restaurants, starting as a busser before moving on to serving. By 1983, she had seen enough of the food industry to identify what it lacked: fresh ingredients.
“Working in restaurants, every place you went you had canned this, canned that—no fresh food,” Gadsden says. “When I came home, I would cook collard greens, macaroni, cornbread, bread pudding, and you didn’t see that in restaurants.”
The number of seats gathered around her home table grew as time went on. With years of restaurant experience already behind her, and the praise of just about anyone who had ever tasted her cooking, Gadsden decided to bring her food to the masses.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll make a soul kitchen, somewhere that you can feel like you’re home.’”
With that, the little pink restaurant on the outskirts of Charleston known as Martha Lou’s Kitchen was born. Her chicken, cornbread, lima beans, and more have been praised by renowned chefs, editors, and television personalities the country over. Martha Lou’s Kitchen has become a destination, not only for locals, but for travelers who have heard that there’s something special happening at 1068 Morrison Drive.
Gadsden credits her from-the-garden approach as the secret to her success. For more than ten years she’s received weekly produce deliveries from her “vegetable man.” Cabbage, collard greens, lima beans, sweet potatoes, and more come direct from the land—fresh as can be. But, if you ask her what she enjoys cooking the most, it’s cornbread.
There’s long been a debate in the South over whether cornbread should be made with sugar, with many adamantly opposing any type of sweet spin on the beloved Southern staple. Gadsden is firmly team sugar. It brings out the flavor, she says. And you can’t argue with a legend.
While Gadsden is no longer a permanent fixture at Martha Lou’s Kitchen, it’s all still in the family with daughters Ruth Gadsden and Debra Worthy now taking the helm. Even as the next generation takes over, some things remain the same: “Of course, everybody goes crazy over the chicken,” says Gadsden. “I don’t know what it is about the chicken.”
Martha Lou’s Kitchen 1068 Morrison Drive, Charleston, South Carolina, 29403