Sam Campbell — who says he was the first native of Hilton Head Island to jump out of an airplane — has a new claim to fame.
He’s the island’s gumbo king.
The 74-year-old organic farmer now living in Tillman in Jasper County said he got into cooking gumbo out of pure necessity. His mother died, and if he wanted her gumbo he’d have to make it himself.
She got the recipe from his grandmother — not that it was ever written down, and not that Campbell will share all its ingredients.
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But he will share his version of a dish that’s been part of his family for well more than a century at a Gullah feast this Saturday on Hilton Head. The dinner — to be served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Jarvis Creek Park — is a fundraiser for the ongoing care of the Talbird Cemetery.
The waterfront Gullah cemetery was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew a year ago. At least one casket was unearthed by the tidal surge, and dozens of trees knocked over by the winds crashed into tombstones and made it virtually impossible to walk in cemetery. The cemetery is in the care of the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church that could not afford the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to revive it as place for burials.
“The extent of the devastation was enormous, but it was surpassed by the compassion that followed,” says the flier for Saturday’s fundraiser.
People from around the nation came to clear the cemetery, with the Island Lutheran Church the ringleader. And islander Ned Allen set up the Talbird Cemetery Fund at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to see that the work volunteers could not do was contracted, completed and paid for.
Annie Miller Grant organized a “thank-you” feast from the Gullah community for all who helped. It was held at the Jarvis Creek Park on what turned out to be a bitterly cold day last January.
Now, she’s the food organizer for Saturday’s event. She said the fund has about $2,500 left in it, but needs to have at least $5,000 to remain active, and spin off some cash for ongoing upkeep of the cemetery.
Again, the Gullah turn to their own comfort food.
As Sam Campbell said, “Everything will be made from scratch. It’s going to be some good eating.”
Diners can choose from an oyster roast ($25); Lowcountry boil by Phil Woniger ($20); or a rib, chicken or fish dinner ($20) with three sides: red rice, white rice, macaroni and cheese, string beans, baked beans, collard greens, cole slaw, potato salad, cornbread, beans and okra, and gumbo. A drink and Hawaiian roll are included with the meals.
Annie Grant’s son Galen Miller will be grilling the ribs and chicken. Aaron Miller will be frying fish. Kroger and Piggly Wiggly have donated food.
“A lot of family members are donating all the sides, and helping with preparation and set-up,” Grant said.
Sam Campbell is getting asked to bring his gumbo to more events. Grant got onto him after he prepared 25 to 30 quarts for the 155th anniversary celebration at their church, First African Baptist on Beach City Road.
“My mother was the famous gumbo lady,” Campbell said.
He was raised in a family with enough boys to field its own baseball team, with a family of cousins across Spanish Wells Road that could also field a team.
His mother, Margaret Susan Young Campbell, made a big pot of gumbo at least once a month, said Campbell.
“I really liked to eat it,” he said. He kept a close eye on her preparation.
His father, Solomon Campbell Sr., is still called the last craftsman, known for had handmade bateaux until he died in 1989.
His grandmother, Julia Aiken Campbell, was married to the island’s original Solomon Campbell, a pastor and teacher born in 1874 and educated at S.C. State University.
Sam Campbell left his quiet island like so many Gullah had to do for opportunity, and found himself jumping out of an airplane with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division.
But he remains close to the earth, like his family before him, and two of his well-known brothers, Solomon “Sol” Campbell who operates Spanish Wells Seafood & Produce, and Wesley Campbell who operates Carolina Seafood and vegetable stands on U.S. 278 at Spanish Wells Road and on the mainland at the Buckingham Landing flyover.
Shrimp is the secret to his gumbo, Campbell said. He prefers the brown shrimp for their texture and taste. He adds some meat for smoke flavor, maybe a ham hock or some beef kielbasa. He has corn, tomatoes and okra, all of which he grows, freezes or gets from his brothers. Maybe a little tomato paste for color.
“Sometimes I put crab meat in it,” he said. “That makes it better, but it’s expensive.”
As far as he’ll go in listing the spices is salt, pepper and seasoning salt.
“I like the meat to cook down real good, and for everything to get real soupy,” he said. “Everybody can’t cook a pot like that. I messed up a few pots, but I finally got it down like my mother’s. I had to pick up the baton and carry on the race.”
If you go
Talbird Cemetery Restoration Fundraiser
▪ Jarvis Creek Park, 100 Jarvis Creek Road, Hilton Head Island.
▪ 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7.
▪ Oyster roast ($25); Lowcountry boil ($20); or rib, chicken or fish dinner with choice of three homemade sides ($20).
▪ More information: 843-415-7831.