There’s a myth baked into the lore about the Skylight Inn in Ayden and repeated for decades: In the late 1970s a National Geographic writer tasted its wood-smoked, whole-hog barbecue and declared it “The Bar-B-Q Capital of the World.”
The truth, as food historian Rien Fertel discovered, is that the National Geographic writer and photographer stumbled into the Skylight after finding their original destination closed. At the Skylight, owner Pete Jones welcomed them as if they had “reached the final destination of a pilgrimage,” the writer recalled. Jones told the men: “You’ve come to the right place. You don’t need to look any farther.” He then showed them a T-shirt emblazoned with these words: Ayden, Bar-B-Q Capital of the World.
This was before the Skylight became a one-hour tourist detour off I-95, before Jones finally installed air conditioning, before he expanded the kitchen, before he added two dining rooms and built the audacious capitol dome on top of the building. At that point, the Skylight Inn was a small counter-service, wood-paneled restaurant with school-cafeteria flooring and about 10 tables. It sold chopped barbecue in a paper tray or as a sandwich with coleslaw, slab cornbread and soft drinks. No ice tea. No banana pudding.
Ayden was nothing more than a town with a population of a few thousand people and two barbecue restaurants, owned by separate branches of the same family. As Fertel wrote in his forthcoming book, “The One True Barbecue,” the late Pete Jones, who didn’t go past the third grade, was a man “who knew how to sell barbecue and sell himself.”
So what do you do when Pete Jones is your grandfather? You do what Sam Jones has done: Take whole-hog ’cue where it has never gone before in North Carolina’s coastal plain.
Late last year, the fourth-generation barbecue man opened Sam Jones Barbecue, a 5,500-square-foot modern barbecue mecca in Winterville, 7 miles south of Greenville, N.C.
Sam Jones Barbecue serves wood-fired, chopped whole-hog barbecue, coleslaw and cornbread. But it also serves ribs, smoked turkey and house salads topped with smoked meat. It has a marble-topped bar with flat-screen televisions and N.C. beer on tap. Its smokehouse is prominently out front. Most audaciously, the restaurant is 8 miles from the Skylight Inn, now owned by his father, Bruce, and uncle, Jeff Jones.
It’s not as if more upscale barbecue restaurants don’t exist – look at Midwood Smokehouse or Queen City Q, both in Charlotte. Let’s be clear: It doesn’t take much to step up from the linoleum-floor, vinyl-seat charm of the old-school places. It’s just that in Eastern N.C., Sam Jones Barbecue is the outlier. It’s changing the definition what a whole-hog barbecue restaurant can be in the part of the world most identified by the tradition.
I believe he was destined to do this. It mirrors very much his grandfather’s story.
Food historian Rien Fertel
Given the Jones family history, Fertel is not surprised by Sam Jones’ venture: “I believe he was destined to do this. It mirrors very much his grandfather’s story.”
He added: “It’s the 21st century version of Skylight.”
change of heart
Sam Jones, 35, never thought his future lay in wood smoke, pork fat and chopped meat. He wanted to be a firefighter. (Now he is Ayden’s volunteer fire chief.) “When I was young, I was a little bit embarrassed of Skylight,” Sam admitted.
His feelings took a 180-degree turn in two steps. The first 90-degree shift happened in 2004, when he was at community college. He wrote a term paper about barbecue. Afterward, he said, “I saw it no longer as a job but as a way of life.”
It had been a way of life for the Joneses for more than 180 years. Family lore said Sam’s great-great-great-grandfather, Skillet Dennis, sold barbecue out of the back of a covered wagon in Ayden in the 1830s. Pete Jones learned the trade from an uncle and opened Skylight in 1947.
After writing that paper, Sam had to take a break from school to work in the restaurant; his grandfather had a heart attack and was too ill to work. Pete Jones died two years later and Sam never went back to school.
Then he got a phone call that marked the second 90-degree turn. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a cultural nonprofit based at the University of Mississippi, asked to shoot a short film about Skylight. Edge invited Sam to a screening at the 2009 Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, an annual barbecue gathering in New York City. The next year, Edge invited Sam to the annual Charleston Food & Wine Festival to cook a pig. Sam agreed but was nervous.
“Nobody in my family had ever cooked a pig outside Ayden, N.C.,” Sam recalled. Rodney Scott, owner of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C., helped Sam cook the pig. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“It was weird. We cooked pigs every day to no applause,” Sam said. “Seeing some reward for what you do can change your perspective. You aren’t just making a pork sandwich. You are putting a piece of North Carolina history on a bun.”
Sam had not only become proud of his family’s history, he figured out his role in preserving its legacy. “I saw that I could be more effective for the business than being the guy who made coleslaw,” Sam said. “That doesn’t mean I’m saying that I’m more important than the guy who makes the coleslaw.”
Sam was soon traveling around the country to cook barbecue. His travels led him to decide to open his own restaurant. He knew he could not attempt to replicate Skylight, which would always be a pilgrimage for hardcore barbecue fans. “I wouldn’t pave the parking lot at Skylight,” Sam said.
His father, Bruce, said he admires his son’s initiative: “I’m really proud of the way he’s branched out.” But Bruce, a Baptist preacher, has only been to the restaurant once – for a family gathering on Valentine’s Day – because he doesn’t approve of its serving alcohol.
These days, Sam splits his time and energy between the two restaurants. He still works at Skylight, helping his father and uncle with ordering, and he’s still the face of Skylight to the outside world.
It was that world beyond Ayden that made Sam appreciate that family legacy and what barbecue and his grandfather gave him.
“I only have what I have and get to do what I do because of the people who came before me – because of that man with the third-grade education.”
Sam Jones Barbecue, 715 W. Fire Tower Road, Winterville. 252-689-6449, samjonesbbq.com
Skylight Inn, 4618 S. Lee St., Ayden, 252-746-4113, skylightinnbbq.com/welcome
Sam Jones Barbecue’s Baked Beans
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 large bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced
1/2 large white onion peeled, trimmed and diced
3/4 pound ground beef, 80-20 mix
2 (28-ounce) cans pork beans, liquid drained off
1 1/2 cups ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons yellow mustard
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Saute diced green pepper and onion for about 5 minutes. Add ground beef, stir and continue cooking until meat is fully cooked.
Combine beef, green pepper and onion with pork beans, ketchup, brown sugar and yellow mustard in a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Stir to fully combine. Bake for about 45 minutes.
Yield: 12-15 servings.