“We are eating Southern soul food. We are eating sweet potatoes. We have some sweet corn, lima beans and black-eyed peas.
Carlton McDaniel is going through the buffet line at Martha’s Place, a nationally recognized Soul Food restaurant in Montgomery Alabama.
“And on the other end we have dressing turkey and fried chicken”
McDaniel is driving the bus for a group hailing from Puget Sound and Logan, Utah. They are traveling through the south on a civil rights pilgrimage. They have stopped at Martha’s Place to eat good food and to hear from owner Martha Hawkins.
“I like to welcome you the Martha’s Place. It is not every day you get a chance, an opportunity to live out your dream. When I started my restaurant I was on welfare. But what I realized that it doesn’t really matter where you come from. What matters is where you want to go in this life. “
Hawkins had 11 siblings growing up in Montgomery. Her family was poor, but she says her mother would cook wonderful meals from their vegetable garden. She learned from her and dreamed of opening her own restaurant. Eviction, bad relationships, ruptured appendix, the loss of a kidney, severe mental illness and attempted suicide brought her low. She writes in her book, “Martha’s Place,” once you hit bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.
“I used to look in the mirror and hated who I was. But after awhile when I realized I found out, hey, girl you alright, you ain’t so bad. Cause I had to learn to love me.”
Hawkins was broke and living in a housing project when against all odds, she had the chance to open her restaurant in 1988.
“Owning a restaurant, never cooked in a restaurant before in my life, on welfare, been in a mental institution, now here I was talking about owning a restaurant, they thought sure enough I had lost it. So I start tearing down wallpaper, I start painting; I went to rent a buffer, buff all my floors. I went to the yard sales. If I clean up somebody’s house, If I backed a cake or pie, I put it right back in the restaurant. Cause you see it was my dream, my vision. To the young generation I want you to know that hey, the sky’s the limit. The only limitation you have is what you place on yourself. “
Martha Hawkins is speaking to group of people that don’t often come together in America. These people, black and white and brown, gay, straight, rich and poor are on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the University of Washington, Bellevue College and Utah State University. One goal for the people on the trip is to connect the struggles of the civil rights era to today’s struggles for equal justice.
Martha Hawkins makes that connection every time she makes a dish. She was inspired by Georgia Gilmore, a midwife and cook, who helped fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950’s by organizing women to sell their baked pies and chicken dinners to boycotters at churches, Laundromats and beauty parlors. Gilmore served meals in her home.
“Dr. King used to go to her house to eat. And everybody that came to town, Robert Kennedy, all of them, they came to town they went to her house. So she had a restaurant and it was in her house. So that’s why I wanted a restaurant in my house cause you would always read about the people that came to her place and everything so. It’s my house now. It is. I’m enjoying it.”
Martha Hawkins is a successful restaurateur and speaker. In 2004, she received the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award for own success and her work with Martha Hawkins Ministries, helping single parents and low-income children. Her book, “Finding Martha’s Place: My Journey Through Sin, Salvation and Lots of Soul Food,” comes with recipes for catfish, fried green tomatoes and the other dishes that still connect her to her community.
Like green lima beans.
“When you cook them, they are hard. Once you start cooking them, there’s so much juice. Fried Chicken, strong stable food and it is just southern, like I am. And I like the collards, cause it’s something you add to it to give it that extra…you know”
You can sample that something extra for yourself the next time you are in Montgomery Alabama.
You can find the restaurant online at Marthasplacebuffet.com.
The next 8 day Civil Rights Pilgrimage gets underway February 27th, 2016
Follow the journey. Hear stories by searching for On the Bus The House of Podcasts. You can also visit the University of Washington’s Communication Department home page.
Don’t eat too much. As Carlton McDaniel reminds us, “Dessert is German Chocolate Cake and Banana Pudding.”