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Charleston Soul Food Icon Martha Lou Gadsden Dies At Age 91

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For nearly four decades, Martha Lou Gadsden served her brand of Southern soul food from a converted gas station in Charleston, S.C. She died last Thursday at the age of 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA LOU GADSDEN: I've been cooking most of my life. I learned by doing. I'm a mother of nine children, so I had to learn how to cook (laughter).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Gadsden in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance. She got her start in the business working at popular Black-owned Charleston restaurants, first as a bus girl, then as a waitress and finally a cook.

CHANG: When she was in her 50s, Gadsden's son convinced her to lease an abandoned gas station and turn it into a restaurant, which she had painted pink and called Martha Lou's Kitchen. Here's her daughter Joyce Taylor speaking to Charleston's WCSC.

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JOYCE TAYLOR: She started selling dinners on Friday at home, and it just - she found this place, and it just went from here.

SHAPIRO: On the restaurant's opening day in 1983, Gadsden made $10 selling hot dogs, hamburgers and soda. Her menu grew from there with the same dishes she cooked for her family - food like okra soup, lima beans, beef stew with oxtail and her legendary fried chicken. Here's her best friend of 55 years, Alice Warren.

ALICE WARREN: But she served all over the world. She had people coming from far and near just to dine at Martha Lou's Kitchen.

CHANG: Martha Lou Gadsden was known across the country for her recipes or should we say lack thereof.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GADSDEN: I don't measure (laughter). I work by air. I do not measure. I know what I want done. But to give you the recipe, I'll have to just make up one because I know how I fix my food.

SHAPIRO: Locals, tourists and fellow chefs flocked to Martha Lou's Kitchen and celebrated Gadsden for continuing the tradition of Gullah Geechee cooking in the South. Here she is again, speaking with the Southern Foodways Alliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GADSDEN: I like what I do. I don't ever get up in the morning and say, oh, Lord, I don't know what the day is going to be. I get up with a meaningful attitude. I'm ready to go. As long as I can go, I'm going.

CHANG: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.