DBBBBQ: Chapter 5

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The Skylight Inn - Ayden, NC

The Q Continuum
January 2, 2007 was my most Q-cessful day in North Carolina. After a good nights’ sleep in Chapel Hill, I left the spare key on the table and headed east to Ayden, where the most famous smokehouse in the state was opening for its first workday of the new year. The Skylight Inn, founded in 1947, brought to world prominence by Walter “Pete” Jones and run today by his kin, has borne the banner of East Carolina Q since 1947 (though the Jones family has prepared traditional barbecue since 1830). Built off a back road of a small town not too far from Farmville, this no-nonsense building, with a capitol rotunda mounted atop as if to proclaim its domain over pigsville, shares its unpaved acres only with the home grown vegetable stand next door. If first impressions were worth candied pork skin, I’d ring this one up at about five wild boar lollipops.

The Skylight Inn - Ayden, NC Chopped Pork - The Skylight Inn - Ayden, NC

The Skylight’s accommodations were equally impressive. While straying little from the sheltered picnic aesthetic of most barbecue joints in North Carolina, Pete Jones made an extra effort to underscore the sheer simplicity of barbecue in the bare bones presentation of his restaurant. Each table was plainly adorned with salt, pepper, napkins, and a bottle of dip, the second trademark of Carolina BBQ. West Carolina joints tend to add ketchup to their dip for a sweeter touch, but Pete Jones’ two-step hot sauce was a historical icon: a hearty pile of red pepper flakes loaded into clear plastic ketchup bottles for all to see, then topped off with a tangy vinegar.

Behind the counter stood a pork portal to the kitchen, where a butcher steadily chopped and mixed whole hogs for consumption. Above the window was a two panel menu indicating that a pork sandwich costs $2.50, cornbread $0.25. The recipes used at The Skylight are no secret- Pete Jones was always willing to grant his ingredient list to anyone who asked, but also noted that he never kept track of quantities, as he never bothered measuring them in the first place. The unrivaled transparency and minimalism of the Skylight Inn communicates a desire to share Pete Jones’ craft with absolutely no gimmicks to spoil the flavor of the transaction.

Chopped Pork Sandwich and Cornbread - The Skylight Inn - Ayden, NC

Flavor, of course, is why I was in Ayden at 11AM, and $3.75 later flavor was served. The pork was at a perfect level of tenderness: not too juicy, without a hint of dryness, and satisfyingly soft without losing its varied form. Bits of brown and traces of smoke completed the package with a light touch. The slaw, a mild white mix, was sufficiently crisp but made a mediocre complement to the outstanding meat. At least, that’s what I thought until I slathered the entire mix in dip. With the spicy, tangy, slightly sweet ribbon of vinegar and pepper binding textures of meat and slaw my sandwich achieved its full potential and disappeared in seconds. The slab of cornbread struck a strange balance of preparation styles: presenting the form of cake cornbread but retaining the earthy taste and chewy consistency of hot water cornbread. It was far from best cornbread I’ve had (I’m a sweet buttered muffin man), but would be hard to beat as a partner to the no-nonsense sandwich. This was traditional Q at its finest.

Before getting back to the highway I was awarded by Pete Jones’ son for my interest in barbecue with an original copy of a newspaper review of the Skylight Inn from 1989 and the standard “Come back and see us now” that I hope to make good on someday. After two hours of driving I was back in the Triangle for a stop at another legendary smokehouse, the original Allen and Son’s Barbecue. With the Skylight up and running, I had hoped that Allen and Son’s had also opened its doors to hungry customers, but found only a deserted building in the backwoods of Chapel Hill. I was tempted to go to The Barbecue Joint, a newer restaurant in the area, but thought better of my appetite and made a break for Lexington.

Lexington Barbecue #1 - Lexington, NC

The destination this time was Lexington Barbecue #1, the Piedmont’s most prominent barbecue establishment. This entire region teems with pork, but research points to Lexington #1 as the must-visit restaurant of West Carolina, whether you walk away dissatisfied or ready to give your last confession. While the Skylight Inn is tucked away in the folds of a small town, this place brings small town traditions to a nexus of interstate movement. It stands directly off the highway in a constant state of readiness for locals, truckers and the occasional curiously hungry Asian kid. Inside is the familiar sight of the family restaurant bustle. I was greeted by a middle aged Southern waitress who immediately asked if I was from Thailand. I responded, “No, California,” and another waitress nearby laughed knowingly as my server explained that I looked like a Thai exchange student who once lived with her family for a year (she still couldn’t pronounce his name). Now, would I like something to drink?

Fresh Pork Rind and BBQ Slaw - Lexington Barbecue #1 - Lexington, NC

Though sharing a stake of authenticity in its food, the aesthetic here was the perfect inverse of Pete Jones’ tough love historicity. Whereas the Skylight Inn is a no-frills joint focused entirely on the Q, Lexington #1 is run by a cheery, talkative staff that refills your sweet tea with a smile approximately every 96 seconds. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, hush puppies, brown and BBQ slaw and sipped my sweet tea while listening to the exuberant chatter of the women who ran this place as if it were their living room parlor. My dinner, easily the prettiest meal of the entire tour, was brought out in minutes and I got to work.

The meat was outstanding. Hallmark tenderness and slightly smoky flavor, with a very good mix of brown. It wasn’t as sophisticated as the whole hog mix of the Skylight, but no worse for the change, and definitely a step ahead of the meat at Jimmy’s. The dip, while nowhere near Pete Jones’ civil war wound, was still tasty, but rendered almost completely unnecessary by the BBQ slaw, which was so delicious that I finished an entire bowl of it alongside the heap already scooped onto my sandwich. I cannot understate the singular greatness of good red slaw; the crunch of cabbage, the tangy zip of vinegar, the grit of black pepper and the sweetness of sugar and tomato tossed in perfect proportion produce too much sensory glee to be conveyed in hypertext.

The slaw was nearly overtaken, however, by Lexington #1’s hush puppies, which made me forget every cornmeal concoction to ever make it past my tonsils. First there was a full-bodied crisp, then a light but pervasive flavor of onion that even a registered onion arch-nemesis as myself can appreciate, then the collapse of both of these sensations around a texture straddling chewy and fluffy in the space of five brilliant seconds of snacking nirvana. Finally, I was ready for pork skins. I had pictured a bowl of candied brown when I ordered, but received a basket of gargantuan deep fried barbecued pork rinds torn right from the smoker. Knowing that I was about to commit an act of consumption more reckless than the time I had Herb’s Special at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles and followed it up with two ice cream sandwiches at Diddy Riese in a row, I doused a skin in dip, piled on the slaw, and sang myself an LDL lullaby. I did not finish the basket.

The Smoke Pit - Lexington Barbecue #1 - Lexington, NC The Smoke Pit - Lexington Barbecue #1 - Lexington, NC The Smoke Pit - Lexington Barbecue #1 - Lexington, NC

When the woman at the counter noticed that I was taking photos, she told me to follow her right into the kitchen. Pit master Rick manned the smoker alone and gladly showed off the wood, the fire, the pork shoulders and the counter where he prepared the meat for service. After the tour he let me out the back door and I was ready to find the nearest deathbed. I settled for a winery.

Five minutes away from Lexington #1, Childress Vineyards, the brainchild of former Nascar racer Richard Childress, was my final stop of the day. Hoping to avoid collapsing in the car, I stopped in for a restful tasting at dusk. The seven servings did me good, though I doubt they did much of anything for my heart. I walked out with a bottle of viogner for my dad and took in my last Carolina sunset before hitting the road out of Lexington.

Lexington, NC

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