Category Archives: Ayden

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.

REVIEW: The Skylight Inn – Ayden

For many North Carolinians, Ayden is considered home to one of the greatest barbecue joints in the state if not the country. I had never been to Skylight Inn before even though I lived about 25 to 30 minutes down the road when I was in college at East Carolina. My friends and I had always talked about taking a road trip down to Ayden on a Saturday but we either got lazy or had gone out to hard the night before or just stuck with one of our favorite barbecue joints in town because no one wanted to drive that far.

Well, I finally got there a few weeks ago when my father and I were driving down to the coast for the weekend and decided to take a detour off of 264 near Greenville to pick up a late lunch. I want to give a shout out to Jonnie Craven for staying on me about going to eat there for a blog post.

About 95% of the time, I try to go incognito into a restaurant that I am reviewing because I think that is how food should be reviewed. If someone who works there ask why I am taking pictures of the food and restaurant, I will tell them that I run a food blog and will give them the URL if they want to check it out. If a restaurateur or someone associated with the website reaches out to me to come try their restaurant, I will consider doing it as long as they know that it isn’t an automatically favorable review. I just wish that I had called ahead to the Skylight Inn because I would have loved to  have gotten a tour like The Eaten Path did back in 2009. I asked while I was there but they denied me. I guess I’ll see if I can do it next time.

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