By Jane and Micheal Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
The barbecue of eastern North Carolina tastes great. But long before you begin eating it, you smell it and hear it. The air surrounding each of the region’s top pits is so heavily perfumed with the scent of halved hogs sizzling on a grate, their fat dripping onto white-hot hardwood coals, that your hair, your clothes, and your car will glow with the sweet aroma for hours after you leave. One steady sound sets a cadence, not continuously, but as a punctuating on-and-off rhythm. It is the thump of heavy cleavers hacking up large sections of cooked meat on a hard rock maple butcher block. The beat is ubiquitous wherever whole hogs are cooked, and often it emanates from an out-of-view kitchen.
At the Skylight Inn, the kitchen is not hidden, so the sound is louder, and you see the beautiful sight of barbecue being made. Enter the building and step up to the counter to place an order. Like an altar in a church, it is front and center, and all congregants come to it first. Here stands James Howell, just behind a large pass-through window, working at the cutting block, a cleaver in each hand. This table is the sanctum sanctorum, where cooked pig becomes North Carolina’s signature smokehouse meal. Periodically, Howell puts the blades down and reaches back for a bottle of vinegar or hot sauce to splash onto the pork, and he shakes on salt and pepper straight from the carton. Nothing is measured out, and there are no secret ingredients. When he’s got a moist, steaming heap of five or six pounds that are the texture of coarse hash, he uses both cleavers to shovel it forward through the window onto an adjoining butcher block in the preparation area toward the counter. Here, servers assemble trays and sandwiches. Sandwiches, which include coleslaw, are wrapped in wax paper. Trays full of meat are topped with a square of cornbread.
Sandwiches are a 20th-century addition, but the combination of barbecue and corn bread goes back to 1830, when Skilton M. Dennis, who cooked whole hogs in pits in the ground, brought meat to a nearby Baptist convention. “As far as we know, that was the first time barbecue was served to the public in North Carolina,” says Samuel Jones, Dennis’s seventh-generation descendant. Samuel operates the Skylight Inn along with his cousin Jeff and his father, Bruce, and is the grandson of Pete Jones, the longtime pitmaster who started in the business when he was seven years old. Pete built the current Skylight Inn in 1947, and in 1984 he put a jumbo replica of the Capitol Dome on top of the building after a journalist declared his place the Barbecue Capital of America.
For decades Pete was omnipresent at the Skylight Inn, at the counter from eight-thirty in the morning through dinner hour. “This wasn’t just how he made a living,” Samuel says. “This was his life. He mixed the mortar for the building. He lived across the street when the land was still our family farm.”
Devotees credit Pete, who passed away in 2006, with enshrining the method of barbecue that makes the Skylight Inn one of a handful of places in the nation where smoke-cooking tradition remains unaffected by modernity. The eastern North Carolina style is known to connoisseurs primarily for its disavowal of sauce. “Grand Daddy always said, ‘Sauce has absolutely nothing to do with making good barbecue,’” Samuel recalls with a smile.
But saucelessness is only the most apparent distinction. The entire process is a precise ritual that has virtually disappeared as pitmasters have gone to easier ways of cooking and to cuts of meat that are more efficient than a whole hog. It starts late in the afternoon, when the pitmaster starts burning oak logs until they turn into charcoal. The coals are pushed from the chimney into the adjoining pit, where halved hogs are arrayed on a grate above the heat. At midnight, then again at dawn, more coals are moved to the pit. There are no thermometers at the Skylight Inn. Doneness is checked by feel. At daybreak, the meat is almost done. “But it is still tough at the bone,” Samuel notes. “It has to be that way because we need to flip the hog. If it was too soft, it would fall apart.” By 9 A.M., the meat is completely tender and ready to be chopped.
The union of smoke and pork creates a subtle flavor, not the least bit overwhelmed by the addition of vinegar and hot sauce as the meat is chopped. What’s striking about whole-hog barbecue is its texture. Along with velvet-soft shreds from the interior are chewy strips from the outside, as well as shockingly crunchy nuggets of skin. The cooked skin is insanely succulent, and its firmness gives this meat edible drama that is lacking in barbecue made from upscale hams or shoulders.
As Bruce Jones shows us the cooler where a couple of dozen dressed pigs, about 140 pounds each, are hung up and ready to cook, he notes with some ambivalence that modern swine are raised to be lean. “Pork is now the healthiest meat you can eat,” he says. On the other hand, the dearth of fat means that fewer drippings get collected as the hogs cook, and the drippings therefore need to be supplemented by lard when it comes time to grease the cornbread pans. The cornbread, like the Skylight Inn’s pork, is basic. Unleavened and about a half-inch thick, it is rugged and leather-edged, a substantial chew that is a stunning complement to the juicy pork. It’s made the same way Skilton M. Dennis made his corn bread 178 years ago.
The Skylight Inn is the benchmark of barbecue in eastern North Carolina, serving a meal that is rudimentary and perfect. If whole-hog, smoke-cooked pork with cornbread and coleslaw is not your idea of heaven on earth, do not go to the Skylight Inn. There is nothing else on the menu.