Give Martha Lou's Her Flowers While, Simultaneously, Getting Over Yourself.

KJ Kearney in front of the Martha Lou's Kitchen mural in Charleston, South Carolina

This Sunday, I took a few pictures in front of the now closed James Beard Award winning, Soul Food restaurant as a way to remember this Gullah Geechee cuisine landmark (to be specific, Angell of @MorningstarrPix took the photo but you get what I'm saying). To be honest, while I cherished the “idea” of Martha Lou’s, it would be disingenuous for me to act as if I was a regular at this Morrison Drive restaurant. Let me explain.

First of all, I’m Pescatarian which means the majority of my meat-as-protein options come by way of seafood. Martha Lou’s was world renowned for their fried chicken so it was rarely first on my list of restaurants to patronize. They did serve some delicious fried Whiting but, to be real, I don't have to drive all the way Downtown to get Whiting. So oftentimes, I didn’t.

Secondly, because of my personal dietary choices, when I did come Downtown for Black Owned eats, I would spend the majority of my time at Dave’s (fried oyster & shrimp basket), Hannibal’s (fried flounder and crab rice), or Dellz (the Beach Bum wrap).

And to be perfectly honest, before Sean Brock told everyone (including Andrew Zimmern) that Martha Lou’s was his Patron Saint of Fried Chicken, most people wasn’t checking for them. It was a good spot to eat in but it wasn’t a bucket list location when I was growing up. That level of reverence didn't come until the early-2010s, a whole two and a half decades after they had already been in business. So while I’m sad that this institution is closing after 37 years, there is a large part of me feels like the outrage behind their shuttering is faux as fuck.

Consider their social media following. Yes, many people and businesses are quite successful without a large social media portfolio but their Instagram account (@marthalous_kitchen_llc) had a whopping 285 followers as of September 29th. Speaking of Instagram, the hashtag #MarthaLous had about 100 post while the hashtag #MarthaLousKitchen had a little over 500 post associated with it. For comparison's sake, the #BlackFoodFridays hashtag, which has only been around since April of 2020, has well over 1500 post associated with it.

On Google Maps, the numbers aren't much different. At the time of this writing, Martha Lou's had received a total of 616 reviews and an average rating of 4.5 stars. Compare that to Husk, founded in 2010 by the aforementioned Sean Brock, which has 2,338 reviews and an average rating of 4.6 stars. Martha Lou's had been around for 37 years, Husk for 10.

While social media does not tell the entire story of any restaurant's legacy, it does provide a "receipt" of sorts. A way to see who was vocal about their love before the news of the closure hit the Charleston Interwebs. I wonder how many of the people who claimed to be absolutely devastated about Martha Lou’s closing, ever left a review? There's so much data that proves a correlation between online restaurant reviews and real life attendance. I bet those some individuals can count, on one hand, the number of times they stepped foot into that iconic pink building. 

Shit, I bet even less people knew of Martha Lou’s North Charleston venture on McMillan Ave, across from the old Naval Hospital (where I was born!). I don’t know if that place lasted a year which is strange considering how collectively everyone is torn up about the closing of the OG branch. Personally I visited the McMillan spot WAY more than the Downtown one because I live and work in the North, hence, it was much more convenient for me. We couldn't blame MLK2's closing on gentrification. Our lack of support is to blame on that one.

I can 100% understand it's upsetting to think that old pink building will be razed for God knows what (hotel, condo, luxury apartments, parking lot?!). But truth is our actions don't match the outrage. Furthermore, Martha Lou Gadsden is 90 years old! If anyone deserves to retire, it's her. Let's work on centering her comfort instead of creating false narratives about the ravages of gentrification snuffing the light from yet another Black business. Yes, that does happen, but I don't believe that was the case in this regard.

In fact, this past March, when I hosted a tour of her restaurant for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, she mentioned to all of us that she was tired. We ain't pay her no mind though. We brushed over that comment because it didn't coincide with the good times we were experiencing and the delicious food we were eating at the moment. Or maybe we just assumed that one of her daughters or Grands (aka "grandchildren" for the uninitiated) would take over when she was done. Either way, I am sure we would have all cherished that time a little more if we knew that the end was nigh.

Regardless, I'm I’m not here to decide who was or was not a “real” fan of Martha Lou’s. No matter what side of the aisle you find yourself, the fact of the matter is—after nearly 4 decades—it’s gone. I rather spend my time celebrating the fact that a Black woman was able to create and maintain a business for that long! We should be thankful that we had the opportunity to taste that food and see her smile. We bore witness to one of the greatest cooks the South has ever known. And for that, I'm thankful.

Close up of KJ Kearney in front of the Martha Lou's Kitchen mural.


It's in that vein that my first #BlackFoodPhotoChallege is crafted.

In memory of Martha Lou's, I want you to find a Black owned restaurant in your neighborhood or city, take a photo in front of the building or storefront (or food truck), and tell me why you support this place. It doesn’t have to be an award winning location, it doesn't have to be operation for 100 years; the only requirements are that you like the spot and that it’s owned by a Black person. Let's give these places their flowers while they can smell them because COVID-19, lack of resources, retirements, and yes, gentrification, are rapidly taking these bastions of Black economic empowerment away from us.

Tag your picture with the hashtag #BlackFoodPhotoChallege by Sunday at Midnight (October 4th) to be included in the contest. I will randomly select one winner. And to keep it all the way Charleston, I'll be giving away a bottle of Lillie's of Charleston Hot Sauce, a sample bottle of Charleston Gourmet Burger Marinade, and "Black Enough, Man Enough" the new book by Charleston native and owner of Virgil's Gullah Kitchen and Bar, Gee Smalls. And if I find some more dope Charleston stuff to add in there, I will!

No purchase necessary and I’m only mailing the prize to a US or APO address. This is not affiliated with Facebook or Instagram in anyway.

Photos by @morningstarrpix.

1 comment

  • Great piece, powerful callout and excellent honoring of a Woman who labored long and hard. And her lima beans?!?!?!? I asked MLG what her secret was to get the creamy, perfect texture, umami wonderfulness of those beans; time, patience and little salt. A true legend. Thank you KJ as always for sharing your thoughts!

    andrew

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