The Starting Point: An American Barbecue Story

by James Boo on January 10, 2016 · 0 comments

Oct 2009: One work day at the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina — one of America’s most famous destinations for traditional barbecue.

James Howel, Pit Master at the Skylight Inn/Jones Barbecue - Illustration by Anthony Go Wu
© Illustration by Anthony Go Wu – all rights reserved

When Jeff Jones talks about barbecue, a meandering desperation guides his words. As he sets down his pork-flank sandwich to tell me what makes his barbecue more real than any other, his eyes pierce mine, trying to penetrate the generation gap he fears has severed me from history.

“Time goes on, and things get left out. They’re livin’ in such a fast-paced world, know what I’m talkin’ ’bout? …It’s like building a car from scratch,” he professes, articulating the fourth and least elegant analogy he’s tossed at our conversation to make me understand that the Jones family does not fuck around.

Talking in loops, Jeff labors the points of simplicity and slow cooking, as if tradition were an impossible notion outside the borders of Ayden, the small farming town in eastern North Carolina where we’re sharing lunch. Memories of homemade biscuits on Sunday carve out space for three-sentence lectures on the roots of food in coastal areas and the original recipe for pizza dough. When he lands on the phrase, “starting point,” he’s not pitching a brand. This is a talk he’s surely had with hundreds of other writers, but when he hits his stride, it’s as if he’s finally found the right words.

“If you got a startin’ point,” he declares, “and you kinda know how it goes about, well then, you’ve learnt somethin’… but if you go away, you’re takin’ somethin’ for granted. Well then, you ain’t got all the knowledge that’s there.”

Jeff, who at the age of 62 eats barbecue every day, speaks partly to his own sense of redemption. He once left the Skylight Inn — a small but stalwart smokehouse built by his uncle, Pete Jones — to work for 20 years at a power tool accessories manufacturer in Greenville. After inheriting his stake in the family business, he returned to Ayden a born-again barbecue man.

Jeff now lives across the street from the Skylight Inn, where he checks on the smoking pits every night before going to bed and unlocks the doors at the break of dawn. Just before taking his afternoon leave, Jeff cuts me slices of smoked flank—no skin, no sauce—to taste the starting point of barbecue, just as his uncle did for National Geographic in 1988, the year the magazine declared his no-frills, whole-hog operation “Barbecue Capital of the World.” The meat is tender, almost creamy. The taste of wood smoke fills every bite, and the flavor really does seem immune to the ages.

~

Taking Jeff’s place is his cousin, Bruce, who spends as much time holding court in the dining rooms as he does behind the service counter. It doesn’t take long to understand why. Whereas Jeff is a workman to the last, Bruce is the most dynamic presence in the building—not least of all because he, more than any other member of the family, resembles a pig.

With flush cheeks, pinkish ears broad enough to cast a shadow, and a two-step spring that carries him from room to room, 59-year-old Bruce Jones is little less than a beacon of barbecue. His natural gift for communion (Bruce is a minister at the Kings Cross Roads Original Free Will Baptist Church in nearby Fountain) translates effortlessly from his role as the voice of God to his role as the voice of the Skylight Inn. He thought little about the Skylight Inn when he worked there as a child, but he was the one who eventually convinced his father, Pete, to expand the business. Bruce was the one who threw the business into regional barbecue competitions, the one who made the restaurant a shrine of edible tradition.

When Bruce Jones talks about barbecue, it’s not to convince anyone of the holy nature of his work. An intriguing lack of regret marks his declaration that the Skylight Inn will close the day the Joneses are forced by health officials to start cooking with steel pits or gas burners. He treasures the family legacy but has no aim to turn it into a household name. Now that he has his laurels, Bruce Jones is more interested in sharing the lessons of his lifetime with anyone who makes it out for a sandwich.

“A man that would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, and a man who would spend a thousand dollars against you if you were tryin’ to steal a penny from him,” he quips with a wink when asked to describe his father. Several yarns wind their way around Pete Jones’ stubborn and quirky disposition — apparently, the man was more impressed when two dwarves walked through his doors than when Ronald Reagan showed up to order a tray of barbecue. Family, faith, and food come together in a way that can only be natural to a man of the cloth. In cadence with the patter of cleavers in the kitchen, Bruce intertwines anecdotes, aphorisms, and impersonations with an infinite selection of chuckle-tipped one-liners to bring Jeff’s “starting point” to life.

~

In the end, the most convincing words at the Skylight Inn don’t come from a member of the Jones family. They aren’t spoken in defense of authenticity or in loving care of one man’s life. Barbecue hounds who make the trip to Ayden aren’t likely to hear these words, because the man who utters them spends most of his day in the corner of the customer’s eye, tending to the pits out back and bringing smoked pork into the kitchen for service.

In fact, they’re not even words.

“Whooooo!” That’s the sound of James Howell throwing a hunk of live oak into the fire. “Doooo!” he assures himself in a meager, high-pitched coo as he picks up the next block and tosses it atop the stack, where flames lick at chunks of wood until they’re reduced to glowing red coals. Wisps of smoke swirl around him, filling the chamber as they have every morning for years.

The cost of being pit cook at the Skylight Inn for the past 15 years shows in James’ thick skin, rough hands, and glazed, yellowed eyes. A stern deadpan and roughly hewn edges belie a certain levity to the man, who shuffles gently about the premises at the rate of two menthols per hour. A scruffy crop of ashen hair, sideburns to make Elvis squirm, and a bristly patch of charcoal just beneath the lower lip burnish his aged face with an untouchable cool.

James has a way of softly reducing other men’s long-winded yarns to single-statement truths, speaking in repetition rather than rephrase and declining every opportunity for embellishment. When asked to describe Pete Jones, he declares, “Short. Five feet. Good guy. Easy-goin’ dude. Real smooth.” When asked who tended the pits before he was hired, James abridges a more voluminous man’s dissertation on history, race relations, and Southern food to nine words and one cigarette butt.

“Got a black dude doin’ the cookin’ before me,” he replies, tossing an empty pack of Natives into the fire.

The Skylight Inn is as beholden to the supply chain as any barbecue joint in the state. The Jones men, pragmatists at heart, know this. Working with changes they have no power to reverse, they butterfly too-lean, oversized, factory-farmed hogs and work twice as hard to re-create the fatty, juicy product of Pete Jones through method. In absolute terms this might not be enough to fulfill their claim that their barbecue is a perfectly preserved taste of history, but one day in the smokehouse is enough to clear up any doubts on the matter of real barbecue.

The process begins moving at 8:00 a.m., two hours after Jeff has started the first fire of the day. Lifting up the tin lids of the smoking pits reveals whole hogs stretched over rods, their innards having been face down over smoldering coals for fifteen hours. Armed with empty cornmeal bags, the two pit masters turn the hogs over. Juices drip generously from the meat, causing tiny trails of smoke to rise up when they splash down.

The hogs will need another hour of smoke before they’re ready for service. Jeff closes the pits and heads back to the kitchen to make slaw and cornbread. James wheels in a fresh barrow of live oak. After tossing the last piece of wood onto the smokestack, he steps out from the ashes for his third menthol of the morning.

“’Bout another half hour,” he explains, lips moving from cigarette to sweet tea.

When the time comes, James holds a tray under one of the hogs, using it to catch the juices that run free when he slices a hind quarter off of the carcass. He drops the knife, slips cornmeal bags over his hands and scoops the quarter into the pan in one smooth motion.

He plops the quarter onto his chopping block just as Jeff is sliding the first batch of cornbread out of the oven. James extracts bones from meat, making sure every edible scrap finds its way onto the block. Then he shoves the ribs into paper sacks, to be sold at five bucks a bag to whoever knows well enough to ask. He picks up a pair of cleavers and begins to chop. The first strikes are aimed at the skin, breaking rind into cracklin’. The next series of blows mixes the cracklin’, dark meat, and whatever else was once pig into a heap. Particles of pork fly from the scene. After dashes of black pepper, Texas Pete hot sauce, and vinegar are added, another stretch of chopping yields a taste of Pete Jones’ barbecue.

At this hour there’s only room for one sound at the Skylight Inn. The pitter-patter of cleavers fills the kitchen, defining the space as the first customers of the day take their trays of barbecue and sit down to eat in relative quiet. At the pits, the crackle, pop, and hiss of the smokestack are deafening. During woodcutting trips to the pile of oak cords out back, each split log draws all attention to its clunky drop into the wheelbarrow. Smoke breaks at the side door are surrounded by the chirps and breezes of rural silence.

The process repeats itself through midday. Jeff takes off, Bruce takes over, and local teenagers step behind the counter to work the register. James refills the smokestack and takes to the meat locker, where a small stable of hogs hangs from iron hooks. He lays a splayed carcass back-side down on a butcher’s table at the center of the frigid chamber, chops off its hooves, then cleaves open its jaw to complete the butterfly. He sets a board across his barrow, heaves the 150-pound body on top, and wheels it over to the pits. By the time he’s brought his third hog out from the locker, a generous pile of coals has pooled beneath the smokestack, ready to be shoveled into pits for the next 16-hour round of smoking.

~

At midday, Bruce is huddled over a table with two locals, discussing the obstacles their son faces in becoming a certified minister. Samuel Jones, Pete’s grandson, has taken over whatever duties need his attention. A firefighter and gospel drummer in his spare time, Sam became the de facto voice of the Skylight Inn after he was sent to New York to receive the restaurant’s James Beard Award for America’s Classics.

“Everybody’s got a right to be wrong,” declares Sam when asked about the time he’s spent hog-nobbing with barbecue bigwigs in the city. Setting aside the opportunity to stake out ground on what’s real in barbecue, he chuckles and offers a more nuanced follow-up.

“When you cross 95, barbecue changes. In Kansas City, barbecue to them is on the bone, and Texas is brisket. When you go to another area, ain’t no middle ground…you either gonna love it or hate it.” While he does note that Webster’s Dictionary defines barbecue as whole hog over wood coals, Sam avoids getting tangled up in the business of origin. Admitting that the barbecue business will survive his own, he doesn’t show much concern about the Skylight Inn’s eventual end. When Sam Jones talks about barbecue, he affirms that “it’s not about the restaurant. It’s about the food.”

Towards the end of the day I return to the smokehouse, only to find the pits locked up. James Howell is nowhere in sight. As vital to Pete Jones’ barbecue as he is, the pit master has no interest in playing spokesperson to American tradition. When the workday is over, he’ll head home. When this job closes its doors, he’ll find another gig. When the last wood-smoked hog in the country is chopped and mixed, and some rich soul is caught quoting the death of real barbecue, he’ll be on a smoke break somewhere else in Ayden. Maybe he’ll be dead and buried himself, joining Pete Jones and the Natives that litter the soil at 1501 Lee St.

~

It’s closing time at the Skylight Inn. I hand over three bills and take my meal out to the car. I bite into the sandwich. The wood-laced pork, the salty bits of cracklin’, the sweet crunch of the slaw, and the tangy zip of vinegar and red pepper flakes merge into one food, drawn from many roots. This bite is a moment flavored by time, not trapped by it. To call this sandwich anything but real barbecue would be abandonment.

“Is it good?” asks the day’s last customer as she opens the door to her pickup truck. When she talks about barbecue, she cuts straight to the bottom line.

“It always is,” I answer with my mouth full. It always will be.

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