Ruta Smith

Martha Lou Gadsden’s April 1 death was devastating for her family, the Charleston food and beverage industry and every person who met the woman whose life mission was to feed her community. After opening Martha Lou’s Kitchen in 1983, Gadsden served downtown Charleston wholesome Lowcountry cuisine until September 2020, when she said, “I’m too old to get started again” after the pandemic took its toll on the bright pink Morrison Drive restaurant. 

Gadsden’s immense impact on the Holy City is impossible to quantify, but chefs, writers and food personalities nationwide did their best to describe what made the soul food icon such a special person — inside and out of the kitchen. 

“While small in stature, Martha Lou Gadsden was a culinary giant in the city of Charleston and venerated in Southern cuisine,” Charleston native chef Amethyst Ganaway wrote for TODAY.com. “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.”

“Such a sweet soul and that smile, myself plus many others will always remember,” longtime Charleston-area chef and Gullah cuisine expert BJ Dennis wrote on social media. Dennis recently relocated to Bluffton to be culinary director at the Lowcountry Fresh Market & Cafe. “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.” 

@chefbjdennis

“It would be impossible to add up all the meals Martha Lou Gadsden cooked over her lifetime,” Kim Severson wrote in The New York Times. “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!).”

Brown | Photo courtesy of the Food Network

In a report Tuesday, National Public Radio (NPR) host Ailsa Chang said, “For nearly four decades, Martha Lou Gadsden served her brand of Southern soul food from a converted gas station in Charleston, South Carolina. She died last Thursday at the age of 91 … When her restaurant closed in late 2020, Martha Lou Gadsden took it as a sign that it was time to retire at the age of 90. Her family hopes to open another location soon and carry on Martha Lou Gadsden’s legacy of fine low country cooking.”

“Spirit In Peace To The Legend! @marthalous_kitchen_llc Your Memory Will Forever Live Through Us! Please Keep Her Family & Friends In Your Thoughts,” Nana’s Seafood & Soul wrote on Instagram

“Martha Lou Gadsden, the chef and restaurateur behind Charleston’s iconic Martha Lou’s Kitchen, passed away on Thursday. Our thoughts are with her family,” the Southern Foodways Alliance wrote on Instagram.

“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,” wrote Hanna Raskin, The Post and Courier’s food critic. “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.” 

“The world is less bright today … we lost a woman who had a profound impact on generations of diners and cooks,” said celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern on Twitter. Zimmern 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.” 

Andrew Zimmern visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in 2011 for an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods | File photo

“Rest In Peace, Martha Lou Gadsden. We were saddened to learn of the passing of this local food legend and entrepreneur, who opened her celebrated café @marthalous_kitchen_llc on Morrison Drive in 1983. We are honored to have featured her in our pages, including just before her 90th birthday last year,” the Charleston Magazine wrote on Instagram. “Our condolences to the Gadsden family.”