Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Capital of ‘Cue

The drive to Ayden, NC, had been a journey I wanted to take for some time. I initially became aware of the small town in rural Pitt County because it’s the home of the official N.C. Collard Festival, a four-day extravaganza in August. The town of fewer than 5,000 expands with several more thousands who line the streets to watch the annual parade and participate in other festival events.

The silver dome marks "the Capital of Barbecue."

Throughout the rest of the year, the historic Skylight Inn attracts almost the same large crowds. It boasts that it’s “The Capital of Barbecue” and even proudly tops its building with a dome replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Some of Skylight’s bragging rights date to the 1980s when founder Pete Jones went to the Washington, DC, and defeated a team from South Carolina in a barbecue cooking contest. In addition, National Geographic has proclaimed that Skylight Inn is the “capital of ‘cue,” and the N.C. BBQ Society starts its barbecue trail at Skylight.

Chop, chop, chop are the sounds you hear when you enter the Skylight Inn.

The signature chopped whole hog (with the crisp skin mixed in) is seasoned with a little salt, pepper, vinegar and hot sauce and nothing else. When you walk in, you hear the constant rhythmic sounds of chop, chop, chop. As you stand in front of the counter, you watch as a huge pile of pork barbecue is chopped by a member of the kitchen staff. The chopping board is part of the spectacle of Skylight Inn, but it also conveys a message, just like the “Hot Now” light at Krispy Kreme. Whole hogs cooked had been cooked all night (for about 16 hours) in open brick pits heated by scoops of hot coals.

A historic family recipe is used to make the skillet cornbread.

The skillet cornbread tastes just like the mid-1800s because Skylight Inn uses a family recipe that dates to 1830 and the initial creation of Skilten Dennis, an early ancestor who began cooking whole hogs in the area. Made with drippings from barbecued hogs, the dense bread is somewhat greasy, soft on the inside but has a crust on the outside.

A tray of barbecue includes cornbread and cole slaw -- everything made according to family traditions.

Often referred to as “Jones’ Barbecue” in deference to Pete Jones, who began the restaurant (as well as the other Joneses who have followed him), Skylight Inn is unpretentious -- except for the big dome on top. The menu still reflects his character and offers a choice of a BBQ sandwich or tray. Money is also handled in an old-fashioned way – piled on the back counter rather than being placed in a cash register. Having not changed since 1947, Skylight Inn, named by Pete Jones after his experience of flying small airplanes from the airstrip behind the restaurant, remains authentic to its traditions.

Bruce Jones (left) introduced himself to me as the "father of Samuel ... and son of Pete."

When Pete (born Walter B. Jones but always known by his nickname) died in 2006, his son Bruce embraced the challenge of continuing the family’s barbecue traditions. Now the notoriety has been passed to his son Samuel, who in an interview with A Chef's Life said, "If the sign says BBQ and you don't see any smoke, you probably ought to keep on driving. In fact, when I met Bruce Jones, he introduced himself as the “father of Samuel, the young one featured on the cooking shows, and son of Pete.”

Skylight Inn is one of the few American restaurants that displays a James Beard award.

Even with the expanded recognition, the display wall of mementos near the counter doesn’t seem to have been updated since the early 1980s. On a far wall is displayed with little fanfare a medal from the James Beard Foundation, which celebrates and honors the nation’s diverse culinary heritage. The foundation selects the most beloved regional restaurant each year by bestowing the America’s Classic designation, which Skylight received in 2003. The award recognizes timeless appeal and quality food served at a locally owned and modestly priced restaurant that reflects the character of its community.

The letter from N.C. Gov. Hunt proclaims Skylight Inn as the "king" after winning the contest in Washington, D.C.

The visit to Skylight Inn is like a journey back in time. It is an American classic that earns its high praise for good reason.

The woodpile in the back is
proof of traditional cooking.
Coals are made in the fireplaces.

The line of customers frequently
extends out the door.
The pit is where good cooking happens.

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