Martha Johnston was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her mother cooked. Her father farmed. Johnston started lending a hand in the kitchen as soon as she could reach the stovetop. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a major in foods and nutrition and a minor in journalism, she worked briefly in restaurant management training.
Johnston became the director of Southern Living’s cooking school in 1978. In the following years, her role expanded, and she led the magazine’s food marketing operations. Interested in documenting food practices and using food as a lens to observe history and culture, she served on the SFA’s first Board of Directors.