The barbecue capital of the world

The divine scent of wood smoke and roasting pig finds you as soon as you make the turn on to South Lee Street, the main artery threading through this faded little town, even though the GPS says its source is still half a mile away. For a Wednesday afternoon in May, an impressive number of adults – some white, more black – are doing front-porch duty along Lee Street, sipping amber liquids that might be tea. Why Ayden has faded so is not hard to guess. The town is an hour off the interstate, on the way to not much of anywhere. The national chains set out their big boxes a dozen miles to the north, in Greenville, draining the economic life from Ayden’s downtown, much of which is shuttered. The town once supported three barbecue joints; now there is one, though its fame has spread far enough to lure a few travellers off the interstate every day. The agriculture that used to nourish its economy has suffered both the decline of tobacco and the rise of CAFOs – “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”.

The coastal plain of North Carolina is one of the sacrifice zones that Big Hog has consecrated to industrial pork production, a business that shrinks the number of farmers in a region even as it massively expands the population of pigs. Long before I registered the pheromone of barbecue, occasional passages of less winning animal odours assailed my nostrils as I navigated the grey roads leading into Ayden. My destination this sparkling May afternoon is the Skylight Inn, Ayden’s lone surviving barbecue restaurant, and even without the perfume of oak and hickory, the place would have been impossible to miss.

The Skylight Inn, Ayden in 1988 – 'a cheerfully ridiculous building'

The Skylight Inn is housed in a cheerfully ridiculous building. A low-slung octagon of brick is crowned with a silver mansard roof that is itself crowned with a replica of the Capitol Rotunda. High above the dome flaps an American flag. The silver dome went up in 1984, a few years after National Geographic declared the Skylight Inn “the barbecue capital of the world”. A billboard towers over the parking lot, highlighting one of the restaurant’s many mottos (“If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not Bar-B-Q”) and a drawing of the late Pete Jones, the Skylight Inn’s founding father. Jones fired up its pits for the first time in 1947. But the sign will have you know that the family’s roots in barbecue go back much further than that: “Upholding a family tradition since 1830.”

Family legend has it that an ancestor by the name of Skilton Dennis launched the very first barbecue enterprise in North Carolina, and possibly the world, in 1830, when he began selling pit-cooked pork and flat cornbread from a covered wagon not too far from here. Whenever Samuel Jones – Pete’s grandson and one of three Jones men now safeguarding the family tradition – speaks of these giants of barbecue, he refers to them, unironically, as “our forefathers”. I know this much (and much more) about the Skylight Inn before even setting foot on the premises because I have read the oral histories and watched the documentaries. These days there is little about Southern barbecue that hasn’t been meticulously documented and fulsomely celebrated; for a sleepy, vernacular tradition, barbecue has woken up and become notably self-aware.

Pig out: the billboard in the parking lot

But what I was chasing here in North Carolina was not a soundbite but a taste, one I’d never experienced before, and also an idea. The idea goes something like this: if fire is the first and most fundamental form of cookery – of the handful of ways humans have devised for transforming the stuff of nature into the stuff of our sustenance and pleasure – then, for an American at least, whole-hog barbecue over a wood fire represents the purest, most unreconstructed expression of that form. By learning what I could about how that work is performed, and how it fits into a community and a culture, I was hoping to learn something about the deeper meaning of this curious, uniquely human activity called cooking.

The first thing anyone who cooks with live fire will tell you is that it all comes down to one word – “control”. But that is considerably harder to achieve than you might think, even in the 21st century.

The control of fire is so ancient and represents such a momentous turn in human history that it has engendered a great many myths and theories to explain how it might have come to pass.

Some of these are just plain crazy. Take Sigmund Freud’s theory, for example. In a footnote to Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them.

For Freud, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilisation that discovery made possible: “This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct.” In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smouldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over. I have, however, on occasion brought up a second theory, one that, though it is equally outlandish, contains a bright cinder of poetic truth that can usually be counted on to bring a smile to the streaked, perspiring face of a barbecue man. This is the theory put forward by Charles Lamb, the English writer (1775-1834), in his essay, “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig”.

Michael Pollan in Central Park, New York, April 2013

Lamb claims that all meat was eaten raw until the art of roasting was accidentally discovered, in China, by a young man named Bo-bo, the dim-witted son of a swineherd named Ho-ti. One day, while Ho-ti was off gathering mast for his pigs, his son – “a great lubberly boy” who liked to play with fire – accidentally burned down his family’s cottage, in the process incinerating a litter of piglets. Bo-bo’s father returned to find his cottage in ruins, his piglets dead and his son gorging himself on their corpses. Ho-ti was sickened by the scene of carnage, until his son exclaimed to him “how nice the burnt pigs tasted” and, bewitched by the extraordinary aroma, he sampled a piece of crackling and found it irresistibly delicious. The practice caught on but fortunately a wiser head eventually figured out that the flesh of pigs might be cooked “without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it”. The invention of the gridiron and then the spit soon followed. And so did humankind discover quite by accident the art of cooking meat over fire – or, rather, we should probably specify, over a controlled fire.

“Welcome to the vestibule of hell,” Samuel Jones chuckled as he walked me around the back of the Skylight Inn to visit the cookhouse where the pits are. There were two cookhouses, actually, cinder-block buildings the size of cottages sited at odd, arbitrary angles to both the restaurant and each other. The larger of the two had recently been rebuilt, having burned to the ground late one night after one of its brick hearths had failed: “We keep those fires burning 24/7, and every couple of years even the firebricks lining the inside of the chimneys just give out.”

Samuel is a cheery, round-faced, goateed man of 29 who has been working in the family business off and on since he was nine years old. He is abundantly proud of the institution his family has built, and feels a profound sense of obligation to keep the tradition not just going but uncontaminated by modern innovations, aka “short cuts”. Southern barbecue is ever looking only backward, but over time that gets harder and harder to do. “It’s a fact that our family cannot ever sell this business,” he explains, perhaps a bit ruefully, “because, see, we’re grandfathered in. With the health department. Anyone who bought it who wasn’t a Jones? Well, they would have to bring the place up to code, and right there, that would be the end of it.”

As we stepped into the new cookhouse, I could immediately see what he meant. Actually, I couldn’t see much of anything at first: the room was wreathed in a thick fog of fragrant wood smoke, and though it couldn’t have been more than 25ft from one end of the building to the other, I could barely make out the steel door on the far wall. At either end of the room stands a big, deep, brick fireplace, in which a monster-sized grate fabricated from car axles holds a tall stack of flaming logs. Bright-orange cinders drop between the axles, where they’re scooped out with a shovel and then fed into the pits. The pits line both of the long walls: a sarcophagus of brick, maybe 3ft tall, with iron bars running across them to hold up the hogs and, suspended above each of them by cables, a 4ft x 8ft sheet of black steel, hinged and counterweighted with cinder blocks, to cover them. The pits can hold as many as a dozen 200lb hogs at a time.

The pit room was in fact an infernal chamber, and not a place likely to stimulate an appetite for cooked pig in many people. The residues of fires big and small were everywhere, blackening the bricks, charring the ceiling, puckering the plywood walls. While Samuel and I talked, I could see over his left shoulder a spectral presence emerging out of the smoke, the figure of a slightly bent black man slowly pushing a wheelbarrow topped with a sheet of bloodstained plywood on which the splayed pink carcass of a hog precariously balanced.

Samuel introduced me to James Henry Howell, the Skylight Inn’s long-time pit master. Howell made it instantly clear he would be leaving all the talking to the Joneses. He had work to do, and indeed it appeared that the lion’s share of the physical labour – putting on the hogs late in the afternoon, flipping them over first thing the next morning, carrying them, quartered, into the restaurant kitchen for the lunchtime rush, and then chopping and seasoning them on the big wooden block – was work that Howell did himself, leaving the Jones men free to hold forth. Which was fine by me, except it meant I probably wouldn’t be getting any hands-on experience or how-to instruction here in Ayden.

Back and forth across the pit room Howell slowly wheeled his hogs, melting into the haze to fetch another carcass from the walk-in cooler, then emerging again with his load, which he would tenderly tip on to the iron grates. He worked slowly and deliberately, and when he was done he had created an arresting tableau: a conga line of splayed pink carcasses, laid out skin-side up and snout to butt. The interior of the cookhouse now looked like a bunkroom, the sleeping hogs bedded down for the night.

Of all the animals we eat, none resembles us more closely than the hog. Each the size of a grown man, hairless and pink, its mouth set in what looks very much like a sly smile, the half-dozen pigs laid out in this smoky crypt made me think of many things, but definitely not lunch or dinner. It was difficult to regard this pit room, filthy and littered with cinders, as a kitchen, but of course that is what it is. And that is why the state of North Carolina has been forced to choose between the equitable enforcement of its health codes and the survival of whole-hog barbecue. Sacred local tradition that it is, barbecue has won, at least for the time being.

The dining room of the Skylight Inn could not be much less ceremonial: wood-grain Formica tables scattered beneath fluorescent lights; a sign over the counter with old-timey snap-in plastic letters listing your options; faded newspaper and magazine clippings about the establishment, and portraits of the forefathers, decorating the walls. But there is one ceremonial touch: behind the counter sits an enormous chopping block, a kind of barbecue altar where one of the Joneses officiates at lunch and dinner, chopping with heavy cleavers whole hogs in full view of the assembled diners. The maple-wood block is nearly 6in thick, but only at the perimeter. So much pork has been chopped on it that the centre of the block has been worn down to a thickness of only an inch or two.

One of the barbecue trays, with 'slaw' and cornbread

Above the chopper’s head, the menu board lists a succinct handful of choices: barbecue sandwich ($2.75); barbecue in trays (small, medium and large, from $4.50 to $5.50) and barbecue by the pound ($9.50); along the bottom, the sign promises “all orders with slaw and cornbread”. A few soft drinks, and that’s it. The only things on the menu that have changed since 1947 are the prices, and those not by all that much. As I waited to place my order (a sandwich and an iced tea), I watched the co-owner Jeff Jones, whom everyone seems to call “Uncle Jeff”, chop and season barbecue. Seasoning consists of salt and red pepper, a splash of apple cider vinegar, and a few dashes of Texas Pete, a red-hot sauce that, curiously, is made in North Carolina. A cleaver in each hand, Jeff roughly chops big chunks of meat from different parts of the hog. This is what makes whole-hog barbecue special.

Uncle Jeff insisted that I also take a tray of unseasoned barbecue, so I could see for myself that what’s going on here at the Skylight Inn does not in any way, shape or form depend for its flavour or quality on “sauce”. This is a word he pronounces with an upturned lip and a slight sneer, suggesting that the use of barbecue sauce was, at best, a culinary crutch deserving of pity and, at worst, a moral failing.

I tried the unseasoned barbecue first and it was a revelation: moist and earthy, with an unmistakable but by no means overpowering dimension of smoke. The variety of textures was especially nice – ham, shoulder, belly, bark – but it was the occasional mahogany shard of crackling dispersed through the mixture that really made the dish extraordinary: a tidy, brittle, irreducible packet of salt, fat and wood smoke.

I think I enjoyed the seasoned barbecue in the sandwich even more. The sharpness of apple cider vinegar provides the perfect counterweight to the sweet unctuousness of the fat, of which there was plenty, and also balances out the heaviness of the wood smoke. Together, the acid and red pepper elevated a dish that otherwise might have seemed a little too earthy. So this was barbecue. Right away I realised I had never before tasted the real thing, and I was converted.

This was easily one of the tastiest, most succulent meat dishes I had ever eaten, and certainly the most rewarding $2.75 I’d ever invested in a sandwich. Barbecue: my first bite made me realise, with a cringing pang, that, as a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires – over flames! – with a pitiable dependence on sauce.

There was so much going on in this sandwich. It wasn’t just all the different cuts of pork, which kept things interesting, bite after bite, but also all that wood and time and tradition. This was the way barbecue had been prepared for generations here in eastern North Carolina. If a sandwich can be said to have terroir, this sandwich had it, a sense of place and history you could taste.

Since the Europeans first set foot on these shores, the pig has been the principal meat animal in this part of the country. Indeed, the words “meat” and “pork” have been synonymous for most of Southern history. The Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto brought the first pigs to the American South in the 16th century. For centuries, the descendants of those hogs ranged freely in the Carolinas, feeding themselves on the mast produced by the oak-and-hickory forest. Hogs were so abundant that even slaves could enjoy them from time to time. And because a single animal yielded so much meat, to “cook a pig” in the South has always implied a special occasion, a gathering of the community.

A large weight of significance for any one plate of food to bear, it is true, but there it all was: the beloved pig, the smoky traces of the local forest, the desultory rhythms of Southern life and labour, and the knotted strands of race – all that, and probably more I didn’t know, seasoning this most delicious and democratic sandwich, one that just about anybody could afford.

This is an edited extract from Michael Pollan’s ‘Cooked’ (Allen Lane)

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