I took this picture of my friend, Martha Lou when I was down in Charleston judging the Iron Mixology segment of the Charleston Wine and Food Festival several years ago.
The look on her face when she saw me for the first time since the early 1990’s was worth the price of driving down from NJ to Charleston. It made my day too because I have never enjoyed a plate of fried pork chops so much as when she made them for me.
I like my fried pork chops as a sandwich. Two pieces of white bread draws the remainder of the cooking oil off the 1/4 inch thick chop. Curled from the heat and impossibly crunchy against my teeth, the bread is not an afterthought, but integral to the enjoyment of the sizzling hot, and salty pork chop.
Martha Lou is a treasure. Not only because of her ebullient personality, but because she is genuine. The real thing. Her sweet tea is her smile.
My story of how I met Martha Lou may come as a surprise for some people who only know me from Facebook. It was the mid eighties and I’d been accepted at Johnson/Wales when it was located in Charleston. I was living in Portland, Maine- freezing- in a place I couldn’t afford and working for the Sonesta making baked stuffed lobster was not endearing in any manner. So I moved down to Charleston. And started over.
During my teen years I had a craving for Soul Food. I’d trot down to East Orange, NJ and find myself at the Peppermint. This is ham hocks and greens, fried pig ears and slaw on white bread and stews that you could smell by the sweetness of the long cooked onions and tomatoes. After eating there for a couple of years and being introduced to the cook by a mutual friend, I started paying attention to what they were doing back in the kitchen. I thought that if nothing else in life, I could become a cook, since my first career as a television engineer was a bust. Because my parents took me to Europe as a boy, I paid further attention to how people become cooks.
They start at the bottom and they learned from the old-timers.
I learned how to cook real Soul food from former Southerners living in East Orange and Morristown, NJ.
I grew up on a gentleman’s farm. It belonged to my grandfather and grandmother since the 1940’s. They didn’t need to farm it, but they did with a full staff like in the old days. To this day the farm is still both biodynamic and organic. The farm was the laboratory of my childhood. It came with all the parts intact, just as it was in the 1800’s. It is still in perfect condition as if the dairy cattle just left for the afternoon. After a rain you can still smell the cows from the wood floors.
Estelle Ellis was our cook. She was from Northern Georgia. I’m sure she grew up around Soul Food because when she taught me to cook, everything was put up for later in the season. As I said, we didn’t have to rely upon the farm, but so much of my diet came from this place or very close by. New Jersey was much different in the 1960’s.
Estelle never wrote anything down, nor did the cooks at the Peppermint- but I paid attention and their lessons stuck.
So I get to Martha Lou’s. White guy in a place surrounded by the projects. Trucks and truckers, not what I would call in the 1980’s as a safe neighborhood at night and I introduce myself to Martha Lou.
She remembered my name- eventually, and I started talking to her about East Orange. She has family up there evidently and I mentioned the Peppermint. Her eyes closed a bit and she said… “what do you know about the Peppermint?”
I told her that I was cooking at a local restaurant, the Primerose House on East Bay Street and could I come during the day and watch her cook?
Well, after much hemming and hawing she said yes- but only after I had to cook some innards for her blessing to be a life-long friendship.
I don’t pretend to be from Charleston, nor would I, but when I saw Martha Lou and took this picture, it was like I was family. Over a plate of pork chops.