Friday, August 23, 2013

I'd Walk a Mile for Good Barbecue

Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, NC gets rave reviews and when Garden & Gun, my  favorite magazine, recently called it one of the best in the South, I decided I had to  find the answer to that age-old Southerner's quandary: Is any pulled pork barbecue worth driving an hour out of your way for?

You may have missed Ayden, NC on previous trips. It's on the way to. . .well, nowhere, really. I love the South and I like driving down two lane blacktop roads through Andy Griffith country, so driving an hour out of my way on a recent trip from Chapel Hill to Nags Head wasn't what I'd call a hardship. 

I could forgive someone with a more pressing schedule for wondering what could possibly be worth the fuss, though. 

Ayden is remote. It's 11 miles from nowhere. (Greenville.)

We pulled up to one of the silliest looking buildings in the South (no small hurdle), adorned by an inexplicable fake dome and absent, oddly enough, any sort of skylight. 

We counted 28 cars in the parking lot at lunchtime, which we estimated to be about half the population of Ayden.

Except they weren't all cars. Most were pickup trucks. 

And they weren't all from Ayden.

There was a long line so we struck up a conversation with an elderly lady standing behind us. She told us she had been eating at Skylight for over 35 years.

"So, you live around her, I suppose?" I asked.

"No," she replied, "I live over in Edenton."

"We're headed that way. It's quite a haul from here, isn't it?" I asked.

"About an hour and a half," she informed us.

OK, so Starlight has at least one customer who has been driving an hour and a half each way for 35 years. That's encouraging.

"What's good?" my wife asked as we listened to the cook chop pork barbecue into tiny pieces with a large clever. "How are the ribs?"

"Well, they're wonderful," the lady answered as she craned her neck to see back into the small kitchen, "but I don't see any today."

And that may be the first important thing to know about Skylight if you're visiting from afar. Ribs and chicken are on the menu, but are not always available, and sometimes they run out of whatever they do have.

Sort of reminds me of the lunch bucket my grandmother fixed my grandfather each day when he worked in the mines. He didn't open it up at noon and ask, "What would I like today?"

He ate what was in the damned bucket.

I heard a lady yelling into her elderly husband's ear over and over, "They don't have chicken today."




I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw, the only side available. The cole slaw was a little sweet for my taste, but good.

My wife ordered the pulled pork plate which came with something called cornbread and cole slaw. In other words, they substitute cornbread for a bun.

The barbecue was  excellent. Three squirt bottles adorned each table. One held a tomato-based sauce, one held eastern NC-style vinegar sauce, and one was stuffed with small, hot peppers soaking in vinegar. I grabbed that one and enjoyed the spicy, hot vinegar taste. Besides, the little peppers crowded into the transparent squirt bottle were kinda cute.

I've never tasted anything like what they called cornbread. It was more the consistency of a brownie than cake and the top and bottom were crisp and crunchy. It tasted like fried corn mush and, while my words may not be doing it justice, it was delicious. It just didn't taste like any cornbread I've ever eaten.

As I looked around the crowded room, I noticed that nearly every patron swatted at flies while he or she ate. It didn't add to the experience but it did sort of authenticate it.

Skylight has been in business since 1946 and from the looks of its weekday lunch crowd, it isn't going away soon. They brag that they still cook with wood. Cooking barbecue with wood is a dying technique due to insurance problems. (Allen's Barbecue in Chapel Hill uses wood and it seems like they burn down a couple of times a year.) In all honesty, I cannot tell the difference between wood fires and electric and I eat a lot of barbecue. It's one of the reasons I retired in North Carolina.

The pulled pork barbecue is outstanding. I haven't had better eastern NC-style barbecue anywhere. . . but I've had barbecue that's as good. If I lived near Ayden or passed through regularly, I'd eat there a lot. 

But would I drive an hour out of my way for great barbecue? 

Fortunately, I live in North Carolina, so I don't have to.

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