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Charleston soul-food legend Martha Lou Gadsden dies at 91, but her legacy lives on

While small in stature, Martha Lou Gadsden was a culinary giant in the city of Charleston and venerated in Southern cuisine.
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On March 10, 2015, Martha Lou Gadsden, age 85, was still cooking low-country soul food at Martha Lou's Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

On the morning of April 1, the spirit of a legend left this life to go on to the next. While small in stature, Martha Lou Gadsden, 91, was a culinary giant in the city of Charleston and venerated in Southern cuisine. The news of her passing hit locals particularly hard, as it was only at the end of last year that the announcement came that her restaurant Martha Lou’s Kitchen was closing down after nearly 40 years in business.

Gadsden was born March 20, 1930 in Charleston, South Carolina, to Joseph and Lillie Mae Simmons. After her father died when she was five, her mother decided to stay in Charleston for work and send Gadsden and her two siblings to live with her grandparents in the small town of Manning.

Her career in the restaurant industry began when she worked as a waitress at the Ladson House, one of the only Black-owned establishments for Black patrons in Charleston. She would cook here and there at other restaurants, but in the early 1980s, she became an entrepreneur when she opened her own business that sold hot dogs and soda. Her dedicated spirit led to the Martha Lou’s Kitchen we know and love, which served traditional low-country fare — lima beans, turkey wings, white rice and cabbage and my personal favorite, okra soup.

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At 85 years old in 2015, Martha Lou Gadsden was still welcoming guests to Martha Lou's Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

When I found out her restaurant closed this past September, I was 1,600 miles away in another state, and cried like I had just lost my own restaurant. Gadsden and the institution she and her family built only more recently began to garner national praise, as white chefs in the area would often dine there and mention its name in passing, while making under-seasoned versions of her dishes in their own upscale and overpriced restaurants a few blocks down. But Martha Lou’s Kitchen was more than just a local eatery — it was a space where loyal patrons became family, where the community was centered, especially for Black folk in the area — and had been for longer than I have been alive.

As a young'un, I didn't really give much thought to where or what I was eating: Food was food and I often didn’t have a say in what or where I ate. But there was no way I could ever forget pulling up to that Pepto-pink place to be fed and watered. As I grew into a chef and moved away from home, I came to realize just how special her food and restaurant was.

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Murals were painted on the outside of the low-country soul-food restaurant Martha Lou's Kitchen around 1985.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

People from all walks of life ate there, but what was most important about it to me was the food she made and the fact there were Black women behind the counter and in the kitchen running the show. In the low country, we are a community where blood doesn’t necessarily make us family — we support each others' businesses, we go out of our way to stop and speak to our elders and their kin when we see each other out in the streets, and we make sure to stop by to sit and have a conversation with them.

Chef BJ Dennis posted a moving tribute to Gadsden on Instagram, and I knew that, as a leader in the Charleston food community and staunch supporter of local Black businesses, he was struck by her passing in the same way the rest of us were.

He spoke sentimentally of their interactions — the random run-ins at Doscher's grocery store, the quick visits to get a plate or just a bit of wisdom, to get loved on by someone who wasn't his blood relative but always made him feel genuinely cared for. That is the spirit of our community, and Martha Lou’s Kitchen and the woman behind it were the epitome of that ever-loving spirit that keeps us tethered together, despite whatever else is happening in our lives.

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.

Without institutions like hers, home feels especially different now. But through the women in her family and the many elders and friends around the city who were blessed to know her, I know her knowledge and spirit is still there for me and other young folks to connect to. Martha Lou’s Kitchen gives us hope that, in a once predominantly Black city like Charleston, with a staunch history of racism, of white chefs co-opting local Black cuisine and putting our recipes in the same restaurants we often don't get to patron, we can not only survive, but thrive. And, partly through our foodways, we can carry the torch that the Black cooks, artists, teachers and businesspeople like Gadsden lit long ago for us.

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In 2015, at 85 years old, Martha Lou Gadsden was still taking the orders of her guests at Martha Lou's Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

That bright-pink building with her name and likeness painted on the side still stands but will probably soon be torn down to make way for the rapid gentrification occurring in the city and surrounding area. But I read there is hope that her family will be able to continue cooking the food she taught them to make, so perhaps the building can be saved.

Regardless of what happens, the legacy of Gadsden and her kitchen are eternal. While neither she or her beloved brick-and-mortar building may not be with us physically forever, both are firmly rooted in the spirit of the people and city of Charleston. We are forever indebted to Miss Martha Lou Gadsden and her kitchen, and she will be sorely missed but always cherished and never forgotten.