And Yet More Shame

When last we met (last week’s column), I was in the kitchen of Skylight Inn in Ayden, watching Mike “Chopper” Parrot.  He was using his weighty, custom-made cleavers to chop pound after pound of some of the most beautiful pork I’ve ever seen.  Slow-cooked ‘til falling-apart tender, with crispy skin so golden it should be stored in Fort Knox like the precious substance it is.The man currently looking after this family concern, Sam Jones comes into the kitchen, and asks if I would like to visit his new restaurant, Sam Jones BBQ.  He also wants to take me to the old family homestead, to see the pit on which his grandfather, Pete Jones, learned to put fire to pig.

Our first stop is eight miles away, in Winterville, site of his new venue.  Located in a newish commercial district, the new restaurant looks like a trim barn with a metal roof.The expanded menu of Sam Jones BBQ is the motivation for the new eatery.  Skylight has been a beloved tradition since 1947.  You don’t put the Statue of Liberty in a sundress, you don’t get Harry Potter contacts, and changing the menu at Skylight just isn’t done.

But the pig is still cooked slowly in a detached cookhouse.  All the menu items are made from scratch.  French Fries and potato chips both begin as whole potatoes.  The macaroni and cheese start by making a roux, and dessert comes from the chef’s imagination, not a number in a food service catalog.And, if you’re a stickler for tradition and can’t quite make it Ayden, they also serve the classic Skylight plate of barbecue, coleslaw and cornbread.

About that cornbread…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s not like anything I’ve ever eaten before.  It’s definitely not cakey, sweet, normal cornbread.  I’ve had corn sticks, that’s not what it is either.  My problem is I descend from Yankees.  If I’d had some Southern kin, it wouldn’t be unfamiliar.  ‘Cause it’s cornpone.

The outside is crispy, with almost a fried texture.  But it’s the inside that’s the carnival for your taste buds.  It’s creamy like a bowl of grits.  The combination of flavors and textures are complex and compelling.  Sam told me there are only four ingredients—and one is lard.  But after some looking, I’ve found a recipe that doesn’t come from the Jones family but comes out as close as you’re going to get without a trip east (which I enthusiastically recommend).

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Brandon, the Rembrandt of cornpone.

This recipe comes from a website called, BBQ-Brethren, and a guy that calls himself T-Man.  But I changed his procedure because I watched Brandon Allen making pan after pan at Skylight.  I finally stopped him for a second so we could share a piece.

Brandon poured in a ladle of melted lard, then poured the batter over it.  After it came out of the oven, he popped out the cornpone and recycled the lard.

Counterfeit Cornpone  skylight cornbread

4 cups white finely ground cornmeal

2 tsp. salt

4 cups of water (or more if you want batter to spread a bit)

1/4 cup of lard

Pre-heat oven to 450. Melt lard in 9×14 pan. Mix dry ingredients, add water and mix.

Take out pan, pour in batter, and bake for almost 1 hour, until deeply golden.

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Daniel, giving that pig one last dance.  Actually, he’s preparing it for the pit.

It was a very memorable day.  I could write reams and reams about my adventures.

The shame I refer to in the title?  Leaving, I got turned around many, multiple times.  It took me an hour to travel the first ten miles.

And, no, I don’t need a GPS.  But I am in the market for a live-in Sherpa…Thanks for your time.

I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Shame

Having no cell phone means having no disembodied voice telling me where to go when traveling to the unfamiliar.  Most of the time that’s a welcome reprieve from everybody else in my life either telling me where to go or thinking it so loudly I can hear them in my sleep.

I do own a GPS, it’s a hand-me-down from The Kid’s college days.  But, it’s anything but user-friendly, and every time I touch it I lose the map I want and instead am given directions for a brisk 2,700-hour walk from my house to a soda shop in outer Mongolia.

Recalculating…

So, I had three pages of hand-written directions to get me to Ayden, North Carolina, home of the Skylight Inn.

And I did really well, too.

Until I got about five miles from my goal.  Then I wandered the countryside like a drunken time lord.  I stopped at a convenience store and got directions.  It took three more stops before I pulled into the parking lot of Skylight Inn—thirty minutes late.As I pulled in, a truck pulled out.  I didn’t know it, but it was driven by my host Sam Jones.  He’d been waiting, but he eventually ran to the post office.

He returned quickly, but in the meantime, I changed into boots and put my hair under a cap—I wanted to be able to go wherever Sam would let me.  After suiting up I went around back.  There an unexpected sight greeted me.

Sam

Sam, and his kingdom of logs.

About fifty feet from the restaurant and continuing as far as I could see was pile after pile of split logs, ready to be tossed onto the fire and turned into glowing charcoal to cook the pigs.  Coming toward me from this forest was a young man pushing a wheelbarrow holding at least four million logs.

Vulcan of this forge is also known as Daniel Williams.  He is the man who keeps the fire burning, the pigs readied for the pit, the pork cooked, and the golden skin as crispy as a bad perm.

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The Skylight Inn cookhouse fireplace.

Inside the cookhouse, it’s at least 4000 degrees.  But this is an old-fashioned place for an old-fashioned way to cook pig.  So, the only way to regulate the temp is by shoveling more or less burning wood around and under the pig.  The only thermometers used are the probe version to check the internal porcine temp for doneness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrive the pigs, which have been cooking overnight, are finished, and ready for the next step in their progress to becoming lunch.  Mike Parrot, AKA “Chopper” comes in with a large basin and takes a portion of porker back with him into the kitchen.

I follow him in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChopper attacks the pig with skill, a touch of showmanship, and a pair of large, shiny, lethal-looking cleavers engraved with his nickname.  He also has the same design tattooed onto one bicep, made toned and strong from the breaking down of up to ten or more pigs a day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMike asks me if I’d like to give it a whirl.  On any other playdate I would happily roll up my sleeves and jump right in, here I regretfully decline.  I know myself, and I know that any length of time wielding those weapons of deconstruction would give a new nickname.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo Chopper for me; I’d forever be known as “Stumpy”.

The day I spent at Skylight was very full.  So full, in fact, I have to finish this tale next week.  Join me for a field trip with Sam, my first bite of cornpone, and more time in the forge.

Thanks for your time.