Monthly Archives: August 2015

Skylight Inn showcases the artistry of North Carolina BBQ

AYDEN, NC – It’s an unassuming spot just off Highway 11 outside of Greenville, N.C., but inside is a third generation culinary tradition and a James Beard Foundation Award. You may already know the Skylight Inn and its reputation for the best whole hog BBQ, but owner Sam Jones gave us a backyard tour of this eastern N.C. institution.

“We go through about three cords of wood a week and eight to twelve hogs a day,” Jones said. “We chop it as needed, so you are getting it right out of the smokehouse.”

Meals are humble and legendary here. A simple tray of chopped pork BBQ, dotted with crispy skin, reveal the whole hog origin of your vinegary- smokey treat. Paired it with crispy cool slaw and a slab of dense cornbread, the meat stands out in a state where BBQ is a spiritual journey.

A glass bottle of Cheerwine or Pepsi from a Yeti cooler on the counter washes it all down. Part of the fun is watching how your supper companions assemble each bite; some layer it on a bite-size piece of cornbread, others use the bread to scoop slaw and pork out of each tray, to ensure a proper slaw to meat ratio.

Backstage, the smokehouse and immense piles of firewood have produced a down-east culinary tradition long before farm-to-table was cool. Here, 180 pound hogs are smoked in huge brick pits over slabs of burning oak. Jones said they try to get dirt-raised (AKA free-range) hogs whenever they can, but he’s acutely aware of the need to keep BBQ an affordable, accessible tradition.

“BBQ surpasses class divisions. At first, my family felt guilty charging people for their food,” said Jones. “I’ve been fortunate enough to take what my family taught me and share it with people who might not otherwise experience it.”

In 2001 Sam Jones took over the family business started by his grandfather, Pete Jones, in 1947. When his grandfather had a heart attack he put Sam in charge. He was 21 years old and a student at ECU. It wasn’t what he pictured for his future after years of working in the restaurant.

“We take BBQ for granted sometimes around here. When I was a kid I hated this place. It was a pure prison,” he said. “But somewhere along the line it stops become a job and starts being a way of life and I love it.”

That epiphany came quietly to Jones. When he first took over their challenge was proving that the Skylight Inn could survive without his grandfather at the helm. He was invited to cook at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival shortly after taking over. It was the first time anyone at the family business had cooked off site.

“I looked around and these people were pure rock stars,” he said. “We walked in carrying a whole hog and they applauded. We are just BBQ folks. We cook whole hogs every day to absolutely no applause.”

He was hooked, it was now a way of life. In 2003, shortly after The Skylight Inn ventured into foodie circles, the phone in the back of the restaurant rang. Jones’ father took a message from a New York woman calling about the James Beard Award, an award voted on by more than 600 culinary peers around the country. It’s often called “the Oscars” of food. She invited Jones to New York to accept the honor.

“What’s that gonna cost me?” Jones remembers asking the woman. “I was 22 years old, heck yeah I was going to New York. I hung up and said to my dad, I think this is some kinda big deal.”

Decked out in a tuxedo, Jones took the stage and accepted the “American Classics” James Beard Award, joining the ranks of classically trained chefs around the country. His subtle sense of humor, North Carolina manners and thick accent charmed the New York crowd. He made the rounds at the after parties, returning to his hotel at 4 a.m. It was quite an introduction to the national culinary stage.

“When you get an award like that, suddenly you’re the belle of the ball, everyone wants to talk to you,” he said.

Now Jones is part of the crowd, traveling around the country, proselytizing North Carolina BBQ culture. He and chefs from all over formed a group called the Fatback Collective, using their talents to put on high-dollar fundraising dinners across the south, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity at each event.

After three generations, Jones is gearing up to open a second restaurant. Sam Jones Barbeque in Greenville is slated to fire up the pits later this year with an expanded menu. He may not hear the applause everyday when he carries out the plates, but The Skylight Inn’s sweet, smokey song will now be in stereo in eastern North Carolina.

Related Posts with Thumbnails