If we don't say some place in the Old North State is one of our favorites, we'll be Tar Heel dead. Well, I love Ayden's Skylight Inn in eastern North Carolina. Wood is piled high where Pete Jones, 75, has cooked whole hogs from night till morning in this location since 1947. At noon he works at the counter beside his son and grandsons, as they serve customers small paper boats of barbecue. Behind them, a kitchen worker chops meat on a wooden block, rapping out the beat of the real song of the South.
The meat, moist and tangy with clear vinegar and pepper seasoning, is served with slaw and a dense cornbread made of hot grease, water, salt, and meal. That's it: barbecue in its simplest and purest form, created by a man who was born across the street.
"My mother raised 23 young'uns, 3 of her own and 20 for other people," Pete says. "We had to work as kids. When I was 7, she asked me if I wanted to stay in the house and cook or work in the fields. I said I would stay to the house."
Many have called the Skylight Inn North Carolina's barbecue capital, and the faux dome on the roof seems to confirm the claim. The dome might as well be a steeple in this state, where Barbecue Presbyterian Church rises beside Barbecue Creek in Harnett County. North Carolinians revere this cuisine and routinely make pilgrimages to shrines such as Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro, King's Bar-B-Que in Kinston, Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, Bill Spoon's Barbecue in Charlotte, Alston Bridges Bar-B-Q in Shelby, and some 20 other 'cue cathedrals in Lexington. Barbecue is as much a source of city pride in Lexington as furniture.
The late C. Warner Stamey is credited with popularizing "Lexington-style" barbecue and mentoring young cooks who later opened their own places. They colored their tangy vinegar sauce (which they called "dip") with ketchup, and began mixing it into coarsely chopped meat and slaw.
Among other places, we sampled Barbecue Center, Speedy's Barbecue, Lexington Barbecue, Stamey's BBQ (no connection to the Greensboro restaurant), and Jimmy's Barbecue, where customers love both the food and the Harvey family who serves it. Working each day with Jimmy Harvey are his wife, Betty, daughters Karin and Kirksey, sons Terry and Kemp, and his grandchildren.
"People like to see Dad standing in the door," Terry remarks. Perhaps they feel reassured watching Jimmy teaching the hand-me-down gospel of Lexington-style barbecue to the next generation.
Southerners always have whispered treasured family barbecue secrets from one generation to the next. In Beaufort, South Carolina, at 5 p.m. on a July Saturday as hot and sticky as sauce itself, we watch an intergenerational, dawn-to-dusk ritual. With sweat soaking their shirts, Jim Gibson; his son, Josh; and their friend Ray Williams chop pork on a plywood board laid over two sawhorses in their backyard. Nearby stands a pit they built of 40 cinder blocks, with a grill near the top. Since 6 a.m., two sides of hogs have been cooking 3 feet above coals.
This is a "pig-picking" in which good barbecue is created through heavy lifting, perspiration, a little beer, and a lot of male bonding, Jim says. Then to accent the warm meat, he pours a concoction of tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and red and black pepper over the coarsely chopped pork.
From eastern South Carolina, a clear vinegar sauce flows north toward Manning, where you'll find David McCabe, owner of McCabe's Bar-B-Q. Charles loves David's sauce so much he advises bringing an ice chest and empty jars. Also famous for sauces are Duke's Bar-B-Que in Orangeburg (it's the color of Russian dressing); Maurice's Gourmet Barbeque in West Columbia; Sweatman's BBQ near Holly Hill; Jackie Hite's Home Cooked Barbecue in Leesville; and Daddy Joe's Beach House BBQ in Gaffney, a favorite of Associate Travel Editor Cassandra Vanhooser.
Rita Thomas sets her tables with three sauces at Bryan's The Pink Pig Bar-B-Que, a cinder block building the color of Pepto-Bismol, just north of Savannah in Levy, South Carolina. A former nurse, Rita founded The Pink Pig with her late brother. She now presides over the pit, which has two sunny dining rooms sparkling with fresh flowers on tables, lacy curtains, and winged pink pigs flying like little barbecue angels from the ceiling.
Her sauces range from heavenly to hellish. They include Original Honey Mustard, Traditional Gullah Spice, and hot Low Country Fire.
Pulled Pork and More
Many South Carolina barbecue shrines serve buffet style. Along with pork, look for fried chicken, pilaf, hash, rice, green beans, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and pickles.