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Family restaurants keeping the home fires burning

Making wood-cooked barbecue is hard, dirty work. But it's hanging on in North Carolina.

By Kathleen Purvis
kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com

This is what it takes to achieve barbecue fame in North Carolina:

Six days a week at 5 a.m., Jeff Jones, 63, crosses the two-lane highway in front of his house and walks up to the Skylight Inn in Ayden, a tiny farm town just outside of Greenville.

It's five hours before the opening of the restaurant that is so revered in the world of barbecue that the owners put a replica of the Capitol dome on the roof.

Jones grabs a beat-up wheelbarrow and pulls it backward behind him as he trudges into a field littered with wood. He loads up with split logs of hickory and oak and hauls it into the smokehouse.

Then he starts another day of making barbecue.

Not just any barbecue: Wood-cooked barbecue, the famed chopped pork that draws fans from all over to the Carolinas. It's been made here for generations, but is dwindling as restaurants across the South switch to cheaper and easier cooking methods.

Today, the fate of wood-fired barbecue rests with about two dozen restaurants. No one can say whether it will be here for future generations. But for the moment, the institution stubbornly smolders on in small towns from Shelby to Ayden where families carry on the tradition with the support from both locals and food fans in search of authentic fare.

The gathering of the wood

Despite the legendary difference between styles - whole shoulders in the Piedmont, whole pigs in the East - barbecue throughout the Carolinas has come to symbolize a certain kind of place: Small, family-owned restaurants that are never pretentious and always reliable. Barbecue joints are community gathering places with intense loyalty, local identity defined in chopped pork and vinegar sauce.

At the Skylight, the day's work begins in one of four massive brick fireplaces, where Jones starts a fire with flattened cardboard boxes and loads in logs.

Then he goes back into the field for more wood. Back into the smokehouse to start a fire in a second fireplace. Back out for more wood, until the fireplaces are packed almost to the chimney, and coals are beginning to fall from the crackling logs.

Jones steps over to a pit, a waist-high brick box topped with sheet-metal lids. With a squeak and rattle like castle gates rising, he lifts the lids and reveals the night's work: Three full-grown pigs, 150 pounds each, splayed out skin-up down the length of the pit. With each pig's nose pressed into the tail of the next, they look like they were chasing each other when a giant squashed them flat.

Below the pigs, coals barely glow, just as Jones left them at 10 the night before.

Jones is a quiet man, almost taciturn. Ask him about the important work of producing North Carolina's most famous food.

"It's hard, manual work," he just says softly. "Easier isn't always better."

The art of wood cooking

From here in the 21st century, wood-cooked barbecue looks like a 19th-century anomaly. After all, we don't send goods chugging across the state on trains pulled by steam engines.

But in the Carolinas, wood-cooked barbecue is still revered by its fans. It came from an early-American tradition of cooking meat in pits dug in the ground. Pigs and wood were plentiful, so barbecue became the Carolinas' food of celebration. It was how you thanked the crew that helped with your harvest, raised money to retire a church mortgage or drew a crowd to hear a politician.

Through the first half of the 20th century, barbecue moved into restaurants. In small towns and rural areas, barbecue joints developed followings with food that was inexpensive and familiar.

Today, restaurants throughout the state have changed in an important way: Many have done away with the wood that defined them. Gas or electric cookers are easier to control and less expensive to run. Even some who say they cook over wood really just use it as a finishing touch.

Pit master Brandon Cook, 40, grew up around the barbecue business in Lexington.

"Hell, I thought everybody's family had a barbecue pit," he says. He remembers barbecue restaurants all around Davidson County that are gone or have stopped using wood.

Today, Cook can track which restaurants in Lexington still use wood by talking to his own wood man.

"It's definitely a dwindling art," he says. "There will always be a place like this around. But not this quality. People are lazier, people don't care."

The high cost of wood

With so much passion invested in wood-cooked barbecue, why have so many restaurants stopped doing it? Take your pick: Restaurant space is expensive, especially when you need space for a separate pit house and a place to store wood. Wood is expensive and must be constantly tended.

"It's not like one of them things where you turn a switch," says Jeff Jones.

Many of the state's most venerable restaurants were started in the '50s and '60s, and not all have second generations that are willing to take it on. The restaurants that do are the exceptions, places like Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, where Debbie Bridges-Webb carries on the business started by her late father in the 1940s. At Cook's BBQ in Lexington, Brandon Cook chose to continue cooking over wood after his father built a new restaurant and switched to electric.

The Skylight is open every day except Sunday. But the work doesn't stop then. That's when they pressure-wash the pit houses and clean out the fireplaces. The fireplaces blaze for 12 hours a day, six days a week, putting out heat like a foundry. Eventually, the mortar and the concrete linings break down. The chimneys can be relined once, but after that, the bricks start to buckle and shift. Each fireplace has to be knocked down and rebuilt every 12 to 14 months.

The cost of pork has risen 45 cents a pound over the last year, finally hitting $1.34. That's the biggest one-year increase the Joneses have ever seen. They held out on increasing their own prices, but eventually did to avoid losing $1,800 a week. Today, they get $3 for a barbecue sandwich or $9 for a pound of meat.

Everyone who cooks with wood agrees it is an expensive way to produce food. At the Skylight, the Joneses spent $35,000 on wood in 2010. At almost $3,000 a month, that's 972 $3 barbecue sandwiches.

At Bridges in Shelby, the wood pile is practically a state landmark on U.S. 74. Stacked chin-high to a tall person, it stretches the length of several tractor-trailers, and costs the restaurant $10,000 to $15,000 a year. The restaurant uses wood for its pork shoulders, but added an electric cooker for chicken and turkey. The electric cooker cost $6,000, and Debbie Bridges-Webb says her electric bill only increased about $100 a month.

At the Skylight, the Jones family has a history of barbecue in Pitt County that stretches back more than four generations. The Skylight's founder, the legendary Pete Jones, died in 2006, just before his 78th birthday. His son Bruce, 60, and nephew Jeff stayed with it, Jeff running the pits and Bruce coming in before lunch to run the restaurant. Bruce's son Samuel, 30, has stepped up as well.

He didn't plan to, Samuel admits.

"Used to be, I hated this place. In my family, you had no option - you're going to work." Samuel left to work in a gun shop in high school and then went to college. He was writing a class paper about his family's barbecue heritage when it finally hit him: "I'm the only male Jones who wants anything to do with this place. It'd be a shame for this place to go when Dad and Uncle Jeff get out."

The slow cook on wood coals

At the Skylight, it's 7:30 a.m. when James Howell, 67, pedals up to the smokehouses on a rickety bicycle. Howell worked on the Joneses' family farm until 1991, when Pete Jones asked if he wanted to work in the pits.

"I told him I could handle it. I like to work."

There are no chairs around the smokehouse, not even outside. Pete Jones believed that if you had chairs, you'd just sit in them.

In the smokehouse, Howell grabs a long shovel, shoves it into the fireplace and draws back a glowing load. Walking along the pits, he bumps the shovel blade along the rack holding the pigs, releasing a thin shower of coals in a precise pattern. The low heat is crucial to drawing the fat out of the meat.

The taste created by pork fat sizzling on coals is what barbecue aficionados say separates real barbecue from imitation. When whole pigs or shoulders cook slowly over wood coals, the meat spends most of its time with the fat and skin up, allowing the fat to slowly melt away. Cooked over gas or electric, the meat has to go on the pit with the skin down, to contain the fat and keep it from starting a fire. Pit masters say that gives the meat a greasier taste.

The hand chopping of the pig

By 8 a.m., two hours before the Skylight opens, the pigs that have cooked all night are almost ready to go. Using empty cornmeal sacks as gloves, Jeff Jones and James Howell lift them and turn them skin-down for the final hour, so the skin crisps and crackles.

Jones can tell the pigs are almost ready when the ribs are separating from the backbone. When you see that, he says, "you're in the home stretch."

He cuts off a quarter of a pig, a haunch and part of the back, and hefts it to a work table. The skin is taut, brown and bubbled in spots, while the meat underneath is moist and succulent.

Jones taps on the skin with a knife and it sounds like tapping on a drum.

"That right there, that's what you want," he says.

In the restaurant kitchen, on a specially made rock-maple cutting board that has a furrow worn in it from chopping, Jones and Howell get ready with four cleavers, one in each of their hands.

"When you don't hand-chop, it ain't the same," says Jones. They chop together, Howell like a jazz drummer, in a steady riff, Jones with his tongue between his teeth, furious and fast.

As the pile grows, Jones grabs the seasonings, glugs of Texas Pete, black pepper, salt and cider vinegar, lifting the meat with cleaver blades to mix it together.

A 22-pound pile of chopped barbecue will last an hour and then it's time to chop more. At 4 p.m., Howell will start the fireplaces again and put on the next batch of pigs. Jones will check on them through the night and be back at work at 5 in the morning.

Samuel Jones calls family-owned businesses like theirs "a dying generation."

"Because everybody, if they can, wants to do it cheaper, faster and quicker.

"And barbecue ain't worth a damn if it's cheap, quick and fast."

WANT TO GO?

The Skylight Inn, 4617 S. Lee St., Ayden, 252-746-4113. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open July 4.

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, 2000 E. Dixon Blvd. (U.S. 74), Shelby, 704-482-8567, bridgesbbq.com. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (They will close for a week starting July 3.)

Wilber's Barbecue, 4172 U.S. 70 East, Goldsboro, 919-778-5218, wilbersbarbecue.com . 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open July 4.

Cook's BBQ, 366 Valiant Drive, Lexington, 336-798-1928. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3:30-9 pm. Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Looking for restaurants?

Try these websites:

bbqjew.com, run by barbecue enthusiast Dan Levine of Chapel Hill, lists eating experiences and details for dozens of Carolinas restaurants.

ncbbqsociety.com includes the Historic Barbecue Trail, a map of 24 classic N.C. barbecue joints, and the annual Wall of Fame, with tributes to famous people in the barbecue business.

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