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.

My Fellow Travelers

Last week I spent a couple hours on I64, traveling east, then a couple more back home.

And I noticed something both alarming and depressing—the roadways seem heavily populated with bullies.

Sometimes, a car suddenly appeared behind me, almost close enough to drive right on up into the back of my jeep.It was at this point I felt unequivocally bullied.  There was menace in their maneuver.  At the earliest possible moment, they would go around, at a frightening proximity; both next to me, and when they pulled in front.

In addition to feeling like I’d just been roughed up for my lunch money, I felt an absolute disregard for, and denial of, my humanity.  I was not only in their way and deserved rebuke, I was less than. On my way home, this attitude struck me even more forcibly.  You see, I was returning home after a day with Sam Jones, proprietor of Skylight Inn and owner of Sam Jones Barbecue.

To look at Sam, you might make a few assumptions.  And, they may go something like this: he’s a rich, famous restaurateur who comes from the most famous and important family in town.  He’s got a fancy new restaurant, and nobody’s ever said no to him, and nothing bad’s ever happened.

Not Sam; just a representative cliche of a stereotype of a rush to judgement.

Heck, in 2003 the Skylight Inn won a James Beard award for “American Classics”.  This award thrust him firmly into the realm of celebrity chefs.

Two years later, Sam was working in the family restaurant, a respected volunteer in the Ayden fire department, and talking marriage with Ashley, a fellow Ayden resident, and his girlfriend of six years.

In their hometown, they were well-known and well-liked, the prom king and queen of Ayden.  Their future was bright and glorious, just like the rest of their charmed lives.One day the couple was traveling in Sam’s truck.  He pulled into an intersection.  And that was the last thing he remembered until he found himself crawling on the road, looking for Ashley.  There had been a collision, ejecting both from the vehicle.

She was under the front of the truck.  She wasn’t pinned, but Sam knew it was bad.  He found his hand-held radio and called in the accident. When rescue arrived, he wouldn’t allow them to transport him until Ashley had been loaded into the ambulance.  With paramedics furiously attending her, the truck left, and finally Sam was taken so that his own, not insignificant injuries could be tended to.

Ashley didn’t make it.

Within six months of this nightmare, both grandparents, constant, daily presences in his life, passed away.  Sam was left in a dark, dark tunnel and it seemed, some days, that he would never emerge.  And many days, didn’t want to.Today, Jones is married with two young children.  He’s also become chief of that volunteer fire department.  He loves what he does and gives back every chance he gets.  He’s smart, funny, cooks amazing Q, and tells a great story.

The point here is that everyone has a story—everyone.  Even the famous guy with the exciting life, even the middle-aged lady driving the well-worn jeep with too many bumper stickers. Every.Single.One.

Life is short, often hard, and can change in the blink of an eye.  There is no telling in what part of a stranger’s story that we encounter them.  It could be the best day of their life or the very, very worst.

So here is my plea.  Please, let us all treat each other more gently.  Just imagine this world if we all acknowledged our shared journey and are kind to every person we meet.Thanks for your time.

¡SPECIAL BARBECUE ALERT!

I’ve got exciting news for all hard-core barbecue fans in the triangle.

The Carolina Inn on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill is hosting a BBQ Throwdown.  On Saturday, June 11th, from 12-3PM, the front lawn of the Carolina will be the scene of a smoky grudge match.  Eight local chefs, including my friend and the Exec chef of the Carolina, will present their unique spin on meat, fire, and fixin’s.

The event will be hosted by Carolina Panther’s radio play-by-play man Mick Mixon and there will be live music provided by The Gravy Boys.

Also attending will be bourbon and beer vendors including Chapel Hill’s own TOPO distillery and Foothills Brewing, out of Winston-Salem.

A portion of the proceeds from this event will be donated to TABLE, serving Chapel Hill-Carrboro children at risk for hunger. In support of TABLE, they ask all patrons to please bring canned food and nonperishable items to donate at the BBQ Throwdown.

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I have it on good authority that my friend and Carolina Inn exec chef James Clark is turning bbq on its head with a completely new and fabulicious take on it, along with a side that will make you weep for joy.

Tickets are $55, and can be purchased here.

I’ll be there, and hope to see you!

Thanks for your time.