Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Paula Deen's late blooming into a restaurateur is storied, but she has nothing on Martha Lou Gadsden.

Gadsden was 53 when she went into business for herself in 1983. She already had worked at several restaurants around Charleston, all while raising nine children.

"If I could make food for them (restaurants), I can make it for myself," she reasoned at the time.

Gadsden took over a tiny, scruffy snack shack on Morrison Drive and opened Martha Lou's Kitchen. Testing the waters on the first day, she sold only hot dogs and french fries.

"She made 11 dollars and something in change," recalls daughter Joyce Taylor.

Twenty-eight years later, lots of folks near and far are making the pilgrimage to the same building, painted bubble-gum pink with blue fish blowing bubbles. The bathroom is outside, the parking lot is rough, and no credit cards are accepted. But good words have spread anyway.

Within its cinderblock walls is a homey soul-food shrine where hot and juicy fried chicken, sublime lima beans, chitterlings and other culinary icons of the South call to the faithful. Martha Lou and daughter Debra Gadsden keep the food coming six days a week.

At 81, Gadsden has no plans to hang up her pans.

"When I get to the place where I can't do it anymore. ... I haven't gotten to that place yet. I enjoy my work. I have something to look forward to every day."

'No dwarf planet'

In recent years, Martha Lou's has made the leap from local joint to soul foodie destination. Praise has come from on high.

The latest was Saveur magazine's May issue in a story on Charleston's soul food cafes.

In February, Sam Sifton of The New York Times declared at the end of a story on acclaimed chef Sean Brock of McCrady's, "In the cosmology of Southern cooking, Martha Lou's is no dwarf planet. It is close to the sun itself."

In March, the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival ushered Gadsden into its local hall of fame by naming her a "Culinary Legend."

One doesn't know what to expect when crossing the restaurant's threshold for the first time. Even Gadsden admits, "You can't judge a book by its cover."

But the door opens up to a hospitable space punctuated by family photos and mementos. There are 2 1/2 booths and four assorted tables, but their white tablecloths refine and unify the room.

Walls display a tributary plaque from the Southern Foodways Alliance and a poster from the Lee Brothers among other accolades.

Three murals above the booths depict scenes close to the heart: going to a church down the road, downtown Charleston and Atlantic Beach, and sitting on the dock of the bay, like the old Otis Redding song.

Gadsden's spot is in a chair facing the door, where she's ready to greet customers and go into action.

Two thin scars running down both knees bear witness to years of working on her feet. But knee replacements in 2005 have allowed her to keep going. "Other than that, I'm doing pretty good," she says, proud of the fact that she is taking only two medications.

Cooking is something Gadsden always has liked to do, although she really didn't have much choice. As the mother to a large family, she had to fix meals.

"I learned a lot by doing. I don't have recipes. I do it by guess."

Gadsden worked at a number of downtown places for years before going out on her own. Their names live on in the black community, or at least those old enough to remember: Dee-Dex snack bar and the Ladson House, which Gadsden says was the first black-owned sit-down restaurant in Charleston. She didn't get a place to cook until Jessie Junior's snack bar opened in 1979.

Her idea of a restaurant was to offer something beyond the typical fried fare of the day: home cooking that would appeal to working folks such as the truck drivers coming and going from the port.

Through the years, "I always try to have what people ask for," says Gadsden.

So the regular menu revolves around chicken, pork chops and fish, macaroni and cheese, white rice, limas, cornbread and bread pudding. Daily specials include a "mystery meat" on Tuesdays, chitterlings and collards on Wednesdays, barbecue ribs and red rice on Fridays.

What's her secret? "I can't stand no unseasoned food," says Gadsden.

Mostly she uses salt and pepper, a bit of Accent, maybe some garlic salt.

Take those chitterlings -- pig intestines -- one of the most popular items on the menu. Instead of frying them, as most people do, Gadsden does them the way she was brought up. They're boiled, the water and fat drained off, then cooked with peppers and onions into a gravy-like stew. "They melt in your mouth. They're much better; they don't have all that grease," she says.

Taylor, the eldest daughter, says her mother never knew how to cook for a small group of people.

"With us being such a large family, we didn't always have. She knew how to stretch a pot. She could take one steak and four potatoes and feed the family."

'Old school'

Taylor describes her mother as a neighborhood matriarch and problem solver whom people would seek out for counsel. Taylor also says there's no use trying to talk her into retirement.

"She's stubborn about it. ... She's set in her ways. She does things old school."

Gadsden was born in Charleston, but the family moved to her grandparents' small farm in Manning after her father died when she was 5. She finished high school and attended Allen University in Columbia for a year before returning to Charleston in 1948.

She remembers the segregation of daily life -- the buses, bathrooms, water fountains, restaurants -- and the notorious Charleston Hospital Strike in 1969. She was working at the Ladson House at the time, and the marchers used to pass through.

"I used to march sometimes because I felt it was pretty much needed," Gadsden says. "Now you can go anyplace you want, eat anyplace. You couldn't do that."

While freedoms have come, challenges remain. "It has changed quite a bit, but we still have things ... but it isn't as bad as when I was coming up."

Today, Gadsden is surrounded by her family -- all of her children live close except for one son in California. She counts 18 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, all four daughters dropped by Martha Lou's Kitchen, along with a couple of those grands.

"She has a special bond with each one of her children. It's different," says Taylor. "But she has the final say so."

Gadsden is stumped for a few minutes when asked about the hardest part of being a restaurateur. Her hand rests beside a hardback notebook that she calls her "memory book."

She uses it to jot down things she needs to remember, such as when the health man comes, when the trap man comes. "I don't know anything about a computer," she acknowledges.

Then the answer comes.

"In coming into this, you have a lot of headaches. You have to be on the thinking part the whole time. Prepare for the next day, and that way you don't have to worry, 'I don't have this or that.'

"One thing about being in a restaurant ... you have to like what you do and that way you do it well. If you don't put the love in the food, you won't have no customers."