A Year Of Barbecue: Eastern Carolina
A (mostly) pig affair, especially at Skylight Inn
Barbecue. Or Bar-B-Q. Or BBQ. Few foods can inspire conversation and controversy like meat that has been cooked using the heat and smoke of a fire. Heck, not only can’t we decide on how to spell the word, we don’t even agree whether it’s a noun or a verb. This year we will exploring barbecue across the United States. After our saucy intro in January, we’re at our first stop in the Carolinas.
If you ever encounter someone making sweeping generalizations about the concept of “Carolina Barbecue,” regard them with immediate suspicion. There is no way to speak with any authority on Carolina `cue without making important distinctions as to the regional differences between Western Carolina (or Piedmont) barbecue and Eastern Carolina. This is not even to mention South Carolina and its own three particular varieties. (But trust me, we will speak of it in the future.)
Interstate 95 connects the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Miami, but it does something more fundamentally important than that. I-95 divides the state of North Carolina into two fiercely loyal camps when it comes to the ethos of barbecue. Not that the regions don't share some similarities. Thanks to the abundance of pigs — both feral and domesticated since Colonial times — when you're talking barbecue in the Carolinas, you mean pork. Temperate climates in the region allow for year-round outdoor cooking, while the by-product of burning wood "low and slow" in barns — a key process in curing tobacco — happens to be charcoal. So it's obvious why it seemed so natural for denizens of the region to dig a hole and put a pig in the ground.
The history of Carolina = vinegar sauce
These early hogs had not yet been bred to be the tender pigs — which troublingly became “the other white meat.” Clever Carolinians turned to a mop sauce of vinegar and peppers to help tenderize the meal and learned to cook it low and slow to break down the sinews. In Eastern North Carolina, they became so enamored of the characteristics imparted by the vinegar sauce that it became the proud basis of their flavor profile. Farther to the west, tomatoes were added to the vinegar sauce; but any red tinge in an Eastern Carolina sauce comes from red peppers. As an aside there is also quite a coleslaw war brewing between the regions, but we'll save that for Food Republic’s “Year of Cabbage” series that I'm sure no one will ever write.
Barbecue east of I-95 is traditionally prepared whole-hog style, cooked over oak, hickory or pecan wood. Unfortunately, some local ordinances have forced pitmasters to switch to gas or electric as their heat sources, but the best joints managed to get grandfathered in so that they could continue to cook over wood coals. These places also frequently burn down, so plan any pilgrimages sooner rather than later.
Another identifying characteristic of Eastern Carolina barbecue is the use of crispy skin chopped into thin slices and mixed in with the meat of the hog to impart flavor and crunch to the dish. Most pitmasters in the region do very little to prepare the pig for cooking, eschewing complicated rubs or injections of magic juices. Instead, they let the smoke do the work, aided by maybe a little salt to pull the moisture through the meat and some pepper to make your eyes water a bit.
The barbecue capitol of the south?
Nowhere is the process of smoking a whole hog practiced more simply or reverentially than in Ayden, N.C. at The Skylight Inn where the third generation of the Jones family cooks using the same procedures that Pete Jones employed in 1947 when he first opened. You hear stories of small, unknown restaurants becoming famous after a write-up in a national magazine, but usually it's in something like Bon Appetit, Southern Living or Esquire. In the case of the Skylight Inn, the magazine that helped them hit the big time in 1979 was National Geographic who named the Skylight “the barbecue capital of the world” in their “Back Roads America” issue.
In a quirky (and genius) bit of self-promotion, the Jones family took advantage of that designation and added a replica Capitol rotunda to the top of their tiny restaurant so that travelers could see the American flag as they passed along the four-lane highway. There's nothing else pretentious about the Skylight Inn with its Spartan interior and simple menu of barbecue, coleslaw and cornbread. I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Sam Jones, the grandson of the founder, at a recent whole hog cooking seminar. Jones is a soft-spoken young man with a real dedication to preserving the simplicity and traditions of the Skylight Inn. “My grandfather taught me how to cook pigs, never really saying anything,” he recounted.
And cook pigs they do, with sometimes as many as 40-50 190-pound hogs meeting their delicious final dispensation each week — the $3 sandwich visitors will travel miles for. Jones uses every part of the pigs, which arrive cleaned and split from the same processor that they have used for over 40 years. “If we could bottle the squeal, we'd use that.”
“When you pull up in our parking lot, you know exactly what you came for.”
Using a hacksaw, ax and a mallet, Jones and his small crew remove the feet and ears of each hog and spatchcock each hog so that it will lay flat on their traditional cinderblock pits. The whole operation is old school — the staff still uses the cornbread meal bags as covers for their hands when they flip the hogs, because “Granddaddy did it that way.” The family is so opposed to change that they still resist Sam's efforts to include chicken as a fourth item on their menu, even though it is part of their catering package. “I'm surprised my daddy didn't give my two sisters the same name.”
The pigs smoke about 16 hours over coals, with a goal to keep the cooking temperature below 300°. Ninety percent of the cooking time is spent with the skin side up to create a smoky bark of outside meat; the pig is flipped during the final hour to blister the skin for the delicious cracklins that make an Eastern Carolina sandwich unique. And you won't find many meat thermometers around the smokehouse. Jones prefers what he calls the CPR class method of “Look, listen and feel.” Before he gives the pits a last firing and heads home for the evening to let the hogs cook all night, he puts his hand on the back of each hog. If he can hold it there, he knows he's not done for the day yet and some more stoking needs to take place.
A deep barbecue tradition
Jones's family has cooked like this since the days of his great-great-great-grandfather in the 1830's, but he acknowledges that there have been changes in his meat supply. “We've bred the leanness into them – not the way the good Lord meant pigs to be. You have to have fat on a hog to make barbecue. But this is 2012, so we call it natural juices.”
Because Jones's methods preserve these juices and add so much flavor to the meat, there is no need for heavy doses of sauce. As Pete Jones said, “You don't want to spend 16 hours cooking a pig to wrap it up in sauce.” There is nothing secret about the Skylight Inn's recipe and they don't use very much of it on the meat, although the ingredients are right there on the table if you'd like to dress up your own sandwich. The magical elixir is made up of just salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar and the Winston Salem-produced, geographic non-sequitur hot sauce, Texas Pete.
History is the backbone of the operation of Skylight Inn, where most folks still refer to it as “Pete Jones BBQ,” even a decade after his passing. “The main thing is to cook it the way you were raised cooking it,” shares Jones who also still shares the kitchen with his father Bruce. The entire family was the recipient of the James Beard Society's America's Classics award in 2003, although only Sam made the trip to Manhattan to pick up the award. An Assistant Fire Chief in Ayden, Sam spent his days visiting NYC fire halls instead of traditional tourist destinations during his trip to the Big Apple.
Ayden is a small town of about 5,000 residents, and Skylight Inn is actually located on the southern outskirts of the town. Jones admits, “There is absolutely nothing convenient about our store.” So it's not surprising that 90% of their business comes from more than 20 miles away from Ayden. Lines often stretch out the door as gastro-tourists manage to find a way to be baffled by the three items on the menu. “We sell barbecue on paper plates in small, medium or large sizes, or you can get a sandwich. I tell them it's not a matter of what, but how much.”
Jones is being modest. It certainly is a “matter of what.” The absolute dedication to tradition and passion for making the best smoked whole hog barbecue in Eastern North Carolina can be smelled in the ancient cinder block pits, tasted in each sandwich and even heard in the rat-a-tat of twin cleavers expertly julienning bits of crispy skin on a huge maple cutting board to be mixed in with the smoky juicy bits of middling meat. “On second thought,” mused Jones. “When you pull up in our parking lot, you know exactly what you came for.”