2/27/06

Skylight Inn's Pete Jones dies

Here's one that hits me where I live:

Pete Jones

You know a barbecue place is something special when you drive up to the place and it looks like absolutely nothing special (other than the 'Capitol' dome built on the rooftop, and the huge flag waving atop that, and a large sign--added only recently--saying "Skylight Inn"), but the cars in the parking lot are from all over the state, and some of them even outside it--New York, Florida, even as far away as Michigan. The exit to Ayden is over an hour from the border between North Carolina and Virginia, at least an hour's drive from the interstate, then another fifteen minutes from the nearest community of any size (Greenville). People from out of town don't come to Ayden naturally; they're drawn to it, like lemmings.

Inside, you have tables and chairs and a counter, and that's pretty much it; to the left is an extension with more tables, and behind is the door you came in. To the left of the counter is the softdrink dispenser--yep, this may be the only barbecue place in all of the South that does not serve sweet tea (strange but true)! To one side of the dispenser is a rack of generic store-bought desserts--moon pies and such.

It's what's behind the counter that sets the place apart from any other barbecue joint in North Carolina--or the world, far as I'm concerned: a heat lamp pointed straight down at a huge block of wood, a deep depression worn away in the middle of it; behind that is a second block of wood with an identical depression, in which lay pounds and pounds of steaming hot pork, glistening with fat and gleaming bits of skin. A black man with a wicked pair of cleavers steps up and proceeds to chop the pork--whackwhackwhackwhackwhack, like helicopter blades--into bite-sized chunks, then transfers the chopped meat from the second block to the first, where the lamp keeps it warm.

You make your order, and the boy at the counter gives you change from a pile of money behind him (they don't have a cash register); you're given a cardboard tray of chopped meat, topped with a slab of baked cornbread the size of a thick hardbound book, topped with another cardboard tray filled with fluffy white slaw. You take the little tower of foodover to one of the nondescript tables, pick up your plastic fork, and dig in.

And it was--well, it was a religous experience, like finding God. Chunk after chunk of the tenderest, sweetest pork you've ever tasted, smoked eight or so hours over oak coals, chopped together so you get every bit of the pig, from snout to tail; every once in a while, you bit into crisp skin, and the crackle between your teeth was like an electric pleasure jolt that shot from a point between your eyes to the base of your spine. The cue was flavored with little else except salt and Texas Pete (a Tar Heel sauce, despite the name)--the people here are so confident of their cue they didn't even bother to invent a sauce to go with it, and damned if they weren't right.

Jones got mentioned by everyone from Southern Living to GQ to People Magazine, featured in both the Travel and the Food Channel, but now that he's dead, I can't find more than two newspapers that will actually bother to print his obituary (it's why this impromptu eulogy is so late)--nope, nothing from the New York Times either, the supposed "newspaper of record."

For the record then: Jones made some of the best barbecue on Earth, the best if you don't count the Honeymonk's at Lexington (and there are days I can't decide between the two--well, Jones did more with so very much less).

I've been to the Skylight twice, and the first time in the winter of 2004 I managed a glimpse of Jones puttering around in the back kitchen with the cole slaw; on my second visit in fall of 2005 I talked to his son, Bruce Jones, who said his father had suffered a stroke some months before, and didn't get out much anymore. Wish I had obeyed the impulse to bully my way into the kitchen to try shake his hand; I just wasn't sure I could get past the man with the cleavers. Now I never will.

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