Welcome to Martha’s Place
SOME FOLKS HAVE TOLD ME they feel an actual tingle when they walk through the front door. Others simply say that when you step inside, someone’s apt to call you by name as like as not. Still others say there’s some kinda magic around here—but I don’t know nothing about that.
What I do know is that every day come late morning, maybe fifteen minutes before we open, I gather whoever’s on shift in the kitchen with me, maybe Beryl and Rosalee, and we all hold hands family-style like we’re sitting around a lunch table at home, and we look upward. That’s what this restaurant is built on, ’cause that’s all we know to do. We pray out loud, all at the same time, no shushing or uppityness when we talk to the good Lord. If another person’s praying then the rest of us are pursing our lips and saying mmmmmm Amen and Thank you, Jesus and Yes, Lord let it be so. Every morning, that’s how it goes.
I hope all this talk right up front about praying doesn’t bother you. I know plenty of folks who ain’t praying folks, and if that’s your story I ain’t here to convince you otherwise. I figure it takes plenty of courage to not be the praying kind, so the Lord bless you if that’s the way you are. Still, I hope you don’t mind getting prayed for beforehand if ever you come into my restaurant. Every morning we’re praying that these walls will bring peace to all inside. We’re praying that our customers will know comfort and rest. And we’re praying for folks anywhere who might be feeling poorly or desperate or may be just in need of a smile. I don’t think you’ll mind all that praying, if you think about it. In all my years yet, I ain’t heard nobody complain about getting prayed for, even if they’re not the praying kind.
So where do you find this restaurant? Well, if y’all ever visit Montgomery, Alabama, be sure to head downtown to the old part of the city and hop aboard the Lunch Trolley Express. The ride is free and you’ll enjoy some good sights. The trolley takes you down Church Street past Troy University and the federal courthouse building; you’ll make a left jog onto Sayre Street, and you’ll stop right outside a restaurant where the sign in front reads MARTHA’S PLACE RESTAURANT & CATERING SERVICE. When the weather’s warm we keep an old wheelbarrow next to that sign with flowers blooming in it. Pinks and yellows and lavenders, and I’m right proud of that sign, though it’s not getting any younger and I see it needs new paint again this year.
Truly, this old restaurant ain’t much to look at on the outside. But it’s got character, it rightly does. It’s in the first house on a street of two-story, wood-sided houses. We’ve got wood shutters on the windows and a big old wraparound porch out front. Across the street is a parking lot with a chain-link fence, and two down is a day care, and right next door you’ll see the Inner City Church of Christ, a tan brick building with six huge white-painted Greek columns out front. Those are our neighbors. Inside the restaurant is the main dining room that looks just like a living room with a fireplace and mantel and hardwood floors all weathered and worn. The artwork all shows rural Southern life, paintings of sharecroppers bringing in the cotton, of folks walking to church way out in the country, of folks having picnics in the fields.
It’s a funny thing about this little old restaurant: it seems to have created quite a stir. I don’t rightly understand it all myself. A newspaper recently described it like this: “For dignitaries, movers and shakers, and people who simply want a great lunch, Martha’s Place in Montgomery has become known as a mandatory place to eat.”
Well, that sounds highfalutin to me, but it’s true that we’ve had our share of dignified folks walk through the door. In the entryway there’s a picture of world heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield in a white shirt and tie placing an order here. Whoopi Goldberg, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Nell Carter, Macaulay Culkin, Angela Bassett T.D. Jakes, Kirk Franklin—they’ve all eaten the food from Martha’s Place. There’s a picture of Ted Koppel and me arm in arm in the dining room. Lots of politicians have stopped by, even the governor of Alabama, and plenty of professional football players, business folk, artists, and musicians.
History is part of this place, too. Rosa Parks used to be a regular before she passed. Missus Parks was real soft-spoken, you never could imagine her being the cause of so much change. She always took corn bread muffins to go. CNN held the ceremonies for the fortieth anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott at Martha’s Place.
Plenty of regular folks come here too. Everybody’s welcome. They call what we serve up comfort food. If you walk through the front door at lunchtime you’ll smell turkey and dressing if it’s Wednesday, fried pork steak if it’s Thursday, barbecued pork if it’s Friday, and steak and gravy come Tuesdays. Mondays we’re closed because I usually cater Saturdays and often Sundays and then I need one day per week that’s just a day for Martha. Any day of the week, you’re also welcome to enjoy a big helping of Southern fried chicken, which ain’t no ordinary fried chicken neither. It’s hot and juicy on the inside with tender, crisp outsides, and it ain’t never greasy. When you eat a piece of my fried chicken you can snap your fingers afterward. Then there’s chicken and dumplings and collards and fried green tomatoes and pork chop casserole and baked ham and steamed rice and smothered cabbage and black-eyed peas. For dessert there’s pound cake and apple cobbler and banana pudding and sweet potato pie and strawberry pie and more.
Over the years I can’t believe all the fuss that this little restaurant has created. Food critics tend to praise it all up and down. Reporters sometimes praise what they call the ambience; sometimes they talk about the unlikely story behind the restaurant. Martha’s Place has been written up in the New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Southern Living, Essence, Guideposts, and a bunch of those Let’s Go books for folks coming to visit America from other countries. I’ve been on National Public Radio. Some college textbook has a write-up about this restaurant in it, something about economic know-how or American business success stories, I guess. Another writer has words of mine alongside those of Camille Cosby, Phylicia Rashad, and Della Reese in a big old New York book called Dear Success Seeker: Wisdom from Outstanding Women. Shoot, there’s even a museum out in California that’s got a Martha Hawkins exhibit in it. Someone told me about that, though I’ve never seen it myself.
Me, well, I’m still thinking about what I got to do for this day. At 4:30 I’m up, preparing the menu for this day’s opening. In a few hours folks will be coming in to eat. On busy days the line will stretch out the door. Corn bread and homemade cobbler welcome everybody so they’ll feel that they’re pretty near right at home. That’s my kind of success. That’s all I’ve wanted, for that’s always been my dream.
Then there’s public speaking too. I never imagined or dreamed about that, but this restaurant has opened some doors for me so that I seem to be talking quite often these days—women’s groups, sorority chapters, clubs, church groups, that type of thing. There’s business groups too, some big corporations—even the CEO of Sam’s Club came to Montgomery after hearing me speak. Seems he wanted to taste the food in this restaurant for himself. I doubt it was my words that persuaded him. It’s the good Lord who sprinkles extra sauce upon my words. That’s what I’ll say.
And of course my boys—they’re my real success. In the entry-way there’s a picture of my oldest, Shawn, shaking hands with the president of the U.S.A. My other boys, too—Quint, Reginald, Nyrone—they all done me real proud, so proud. But I’ll tell you more about that to come.
Things weren’t always this way with Martha Hawkins. I guess that’s what makes my story something to tell. I had to overcome a heap of trouble to find this success today. Some folks would call my restaurant the picture of the American dream, but I know it involves more. Ask me today what the secret to success is and I’ll tell you that it’s not about where you are from, or how you got to where you are, but about whether you can step into God’s promise for your life. That’s the secret I’ve found. It’s made all the difference between failure and success, poverty and prosperity, sadness and happiness, even life and death.
Let me see if I can describe success in ordinary terms, something I’m real familiar with. When I think of success I like to think of lima beans, one of the regulars on my menu. Most folks will tell you that they never met a lima bean they liked, and I can value that, for most lima beans are not worth the heap of dirt they was growed in. But lima beans are on my menu for a reason.
When you think of lima beans they’re usually small and shriveled, all tumbling lost at the cold end of a bag of mixed vegetables. Folks will say that no lima bean never amounted to much. But the lima beans at Martha’s Place are just plain different. Why, a fella from up Mississippi ordered a bowl just the other day. He was a big fella with a ruddy face and white suit, no stranger to eating I guessed, and suspicious at first at the bowlful of beans I brought him, wrinkling his nose and wiping his brow like it was gonna take a lot of work to choke them down. He forked up one, tasted it, then he got this particular smile on his face. “Martha,” he said, “these lima beans are downright luscious,” and he wolfed that bowl down and asked for another. That’s the word he used: luscious. I’ve heard my lima beans described as a lot of good things before, but I ain’t never heard no one describe my lima beans as luscious.
So this is what you’ll taste if you ever order yourself a bowl. The lima beans at Martha’s Place are cooked with a whole lot of love. When you put them against your lips they feel plump, like you was smooching the back of your baby grandson’s knee. The beans are soft and piping warm, straight out of the pot they was cooked in. They’re cooked in together with a lot of good country butter, and flavored with salt and pepper and a few kitchen secrets only a handful of folks know. And if you close your eyes and let them, those lima beans will remind you of sitting at home with all the people you love, and on the supper table in front of you is spread a country banquet on a red-checked cloth, and all of your friends are enjoying themselves and diving in and helping themselves and joking together and having a good old time.
Those lima beans are on my menu because I know how food can become more than just food. It’s what a body uses for change. Like crackers and grape juice passed around at church, food can become what centers things when everything has gone astray. You take something as poor and lonely as a lima bean—on one hand it’s ugly and stupid and forlorn and forgotten. But then you cook it just so, and a powerful change happens. Lima beans become something luscious—the food of delight and flavor and faith.
That’s why they’re on my menu at Martha’s Place. That’s the poetry of this restaurant’s life, my life, my success, this food that smacks of hope. And that’s what I aim to show you in the pages to come. It’ll take some time to get there. We’ve got to pass through some mighty dark waters before we come to the light. But we’ll get there soon. Hope is right around the corner, I promise. It’s right there on the table with a warm cake pan of corn bread. There’s a mound of soft butter and side plate with your name on it. And next to that is a glass for receiving. And a frosty pitcher full of ice-cold lemonade.
© 2010 Martha Hawkins and Marcus Brotherton