Friday, July 18, 2008

NCBBQII Part The Third: Return to The Barbecue Capital of The World, The Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC

Pit Boss Working the Cleaver, July 2006

North Carolina barbecue is a complex tradition. For that reason, it's a good thing that nothing ever changes at the Skylight Inn. Hidden on a side road in the farm town of Ayden, the Skylight serves up whole hog barbecue in a way that no other commercial establishment I know of does. The place has been there for decades, but in our two visits, nearly two years apart, the only thing that changed was the uniforms on the employees.

Pit Boss Working the Cleaver, May 2008

Anyone can read up on the Skylight: it was crowned the "barbecue capital of the world" by National Geographic in either 1979 or 1988, depending on your source, and since then, it's been featured in GQ and People. But the crowd is totally rural: decent, Christian-shirt-and-cap-wearing people of two varieties, white and black. That said, race and class happen to be irrelevant in barbecue. And while the Skylight Inn's presence in the national consciousness is clearly the result of and evidence of the intelligentsia's visits to Ayden, I've never seen another out-of-towner there.

Waiting for Barbecue, 2008

The Skylight Inn produces four things: whole hog barbecue, truly unique cornbread, a simple and sweet coleslaw, and requisite sweet tea. You can't buy anything else and the recipes never change. So what's so different about their food?

The Product, 2006

Obviously, the barbecue is the centerpiece, and to an outsider, it conveys a sense of strangeness that can't be forotten. The Skylight Inn's pit boss, who has apparently worked there many years, cooks whole hogs over hickory coals for several hours, then hand-chops every usable piece of pig on a giant wooden cutting board adjacent to a similarly sized wooden trough. The cutting board is in the kitchen, and the trough is in the dining room.

He picks meat off the bones--including the skull--then pours both white and cider vinegar, salt, and hot sauce over the steaming meat...

...and blends and chops it all together with the rhythmic pulse of his cleaver. Chop chop chop chop chop. When the mix is consistent and perfect, the blade of the cook's cleaver pushes it from the cutting board to the trough, where front end employees load up paper trays of barbecue.

On our second visit, we observed the cook scoring sheets of brittle pigskin, then chopping it into tiny bits, then blending them into the more succulent meat. This is what it looks like in the end:

The Product, 2008

It is indeed the pigskin that gives the Skylight's barbecue its most oddly appealing attribute: the crunch factor. The first time I ate there (on NCBBQI, July 2006), I feared that I'd break a tooth on a bone fragment or piece of cartilage. But I soon learned that nothing unchewable goes into the Skylight's barbecue. Smoked pigskin pushes back a bit on your teeth with a faint crunch, but it's nothing you can't handle. And the unique blend of meat and skin serves as an ideal sponge for the pickled pepper-laden cider vinegar found on every table in the dining room, not to mention the individual condiments that are mixed into the barbecue by the pit boss's blade.

Cider Vinegar with Peppers, 2008

That leaves us to the sides. The Skylight's cornbread is strange and flat. I dare say it's almost flavorless, but the North Carolina Barbecue Society Website (and the book it quotes) claims that the very flat cornbread actually has "drippings" from smoked hogs mixed into the dough. I'll believe it when I see it: I like to have an everyman experience wherever I go, so I've never asked to tour the pits or the kitchen.

The slaw is simple, green, and sweet. It's very finely chopped, and neither watery nor thick. It's a perfect accompaniment to the meat.

Outside, relics like this sign...

"If It's Not Cooked With Wood...," 2006

...bear silent witness to the traditions that are upheld at the Skylight Inn. Will the traditions continue? It seems that the pit boss, that frequent subject of my photographs, is truly the man whose craft and dedication keep the place going. Who will take over when he is gone? Who will get the coals going at 4am and babysit the smoking pigs for hours, then chop them up for hours more, then dispose of the burnt coals and select the firewood for tomorrow?

Pit Boss Selecting Firewood, 2008

A guest reviewer on a popular barbecue website suggests that they "train some Latinos" to carry on this tradition of extremely difficult work. (I'll be writing about Hispanics in the south in another post.)

I'm glad to report that the Skylight, at least right now, is what it has been, and reminds in our minds the king of Eastern Style barbecue.

Barbecue Capital of the World, 2006

BAR-B-Q KING, 2008

Additional photos are available on Flickr, from visits in July 2006 and May 2008.

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Blogger Elizabeth said...

It seems that now they might accept checks.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

What an eye.

3:12 PM  

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