Back on May 21, I made my way east from Mebane - first along I-40 East and then along 264 East - to Greenville for Eastern Alamance’s NCHSAA 3A state playoff softball game against D.H. Conley High School.
The Eagles, of course, won the road game in extra innings, 3-2, on their way to a two-game sweep that got them to this coming weekend’s state finals against Central Cabarrus.
But before I traveled to D.H. Conley that Tuesday night for the big softball game, I made another important trip.
I made my way to Ayden, traveling off 264 East to North Carolina Highway 903 North, to the Skylight Inn.
The Skylight Inn is a small hole in the wall along Lee Street, just to the immediate south of downtown Ayden. It is known for its interesting roof adornment - a dome replicating the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. - along with the seemingly endless stacks of wood in a field behind the restaurant. It is also known - thanks in large part to a 1979 feature in National Geographic Magazine and many other features over the decades - for being among the very best places in the Tar Heel State to enjoy a plate of barbecue.
Pete Jones opened the Skylight Inn back in 1947, when he was still a teenager. More than 70 years later, his heirs are still cooking barbecue the exact same way, at the exact same place.
Although I’ve been to barbecue restaurants all over the place, this was my very first trip to the Skylight Inn. And it turned into a meal that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. But more on that in a moment……
A Dying Art......
Although barbecue has emerged as a staple of culinary life in North Carolina, the process of cooking pork shoulders and butts over hickory and other types of hardwood is becoming a dying art throughout the state. Whereas there were hundreds of small mom-and-pop barbecue joints who cooked whole hogs in wood pits all over North Carolina back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there are now believed to be less than fifty left across the state who do it the old-fashioned way.
Fortunately, at least one such restaurant resides in Mebane - Hursey’s Barbecue.
The heirs of Sylvester Hursey continue the tradition that he began in 1945, when he and his wife, Daisy, began preparing hickory-smoked pork and selling it to their friends and neighbors. Hursey’s has multiple locations, including restaurants in Burlington and Graham along with its recently-opened Mebane site, and appears to be doing well.
But sadly, Hursey’s is more the exception than the rule these days. Just in the past few months, some of the state’s most well-known and celebrated barbecue restaurants have gone out of business for various reasons.
Last October, Jack Cobb and Son Barbecue in Farmville closed its doors after 47 years in the same location. Although the business was still busy on a daily basis, Rudy Cobb made the decision to step away and retire after a lifetime cooking and selling barbecue.
This past December, Keith Allen closed Allen & Son’s primary restaurant along Highway 86 in Orange County, approximately 15 minutes east of Mebane. Allen & Sons had been in business for 48 years. Without a clear successor, Allen also made the decision to retire despite owning a still-profitable business. Allen & Son’s continues to have one location in Pittsboro through a separate licensing agreement.
You always knew you were going to pay a couple dollars more for an Allen and Sons barbecue sandwich than you were going to pay at chain restaurants. But you were also going to get a flavor that simply can’t be replicated with gas - that smoky flavor that brings out the tenderness of the meat, along with the tangy juices in the pork.
Allen and Sons also had legendary hush puppies - I simply haven’t tasted better in my entire life. The loss of this local treasure was certainly a bummer for all local barbecue aficionados.
Also going the way of Allen and Sons was Bill Ellis Barbecue of Wilson, which closed in January after 55 years of business.
But there was another recent barbecue restaurant closing that hit even closer to home for me - the stunning closing of Wilber’s Barbecue, located along Highway 70 in Goldsboro.
In mid-March, the North Carolina Department of Revenue reportedly shut Wilber’s down, citing six tax liens and more than $70,000 in tax debt. Wilber’s had been in business - under the same ownership, at the same location - since 1962.
A Way of Life in North Carolina......
I grew up on Wilber’s Barbecue - my grandmother being an old classmate of Wilber Shirley, the owner of the establishment for more than a half century. Throughout my childhood, when my grandmother would go to her hometown of Saulston, just outside Goldsboro in eastern Wayne County, she would often stop by Wilber’s Barbecue on her way home. Living next door to her, she often invited my parents and I over for dinner, including every Sunday after church.
I can vividly remember sitting at the bar in her kitchen eating that delicious finely-chopped, wood-smoked pork, developing even at the youngest age a love for eastern North Carolina barbecue. While my parents struggled to get me to eat collard greens, butter beans, and other accompanying dishes, they never had to ask me twice to dig into some barbecue.
My mother has told me stories of how my late grandfather used to dig out pits in the yard, where they would get wood heated up and smoke whole hogs.
As a child, we would often have pig pickings - particularly around the time of my grandfather’s birthday, which was the third week of March. I remember often waking up in the middle of the night to go out with my grandfather or father to turn the pig. I remember how exciting it used to be when I was finally old enough to help with the sprinkling of the vinegar and pepper spices. And then, when I was even older, when I got to help out with the chopping - wielding a large cleaver to chop the pork up into small bite-sized chunks.
In hindsight, eastern North Carolina barbecue was almost as much a part of my childhood as baseball games, trips to the beach, and family cookouts.
As a coastal resident, eastern North Carolina barbecue was all I knew growing up. In fact, I had to go to college and purchase a house west of Raleigh to realize that there were other types of smoked pork that people called barbecue. I literally didn’t know that there was anything other than vinegar-based pork that people called barbecue until I was in my mid-twenties.
On a work trip to Lexington one evening, I went by Lexington Barbecue and was introduced to a whole new world. Since I’m a big fan of ketchup and tomato-based dishes such as spaghetti and vegetable soups, it was pretty easy for me to get into Lexington-style barbecue. And when I’m out that way for whatever reason, I make a point to get some Lexington barbecue.
Despite my loyalties to eastern North Carolina barbecue, I’m not one to get into the debate about whether eastern North Carolina barbecue is better than Lexington-style North Carolina barbecue. I also don’t debate whether our barbecue in North Carolina is superior or inferior to the sauce-heavy Memphis-style barbecue, or the Texas-style brisket that comes in longer strips as opposed to being chopped up. It’s all good to me.
Where I draw the line is how the pork is cooked.
I’m partial to those hard-working, hardy souls who still get up at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. - or even stay up all night in some cases - to cook the pork over wood. And I’m willing to drive many miles out of my way, and pay extra, to get such food. I can appreciate the work that went into it. There’s also no way to replicate that smoky flavor but by cooking the meat over wood.
One time, on another work trip to Columbia, South Carolina, I attempted to eat the mustard-based substance that South Carolinians call barbecue. Let me just say it’s a feeble attempt to keep up.
Mustard is a great on a hot dog, and arguably even better on a sausage biscuit. But in my humble opinion, mustard doesn’t belong mixed in with wood-smoked pork.
Fine people serving a fine product……
The losses of Wilber’s, and Allen and Son’s, and Jack Cobb and Sons, and Bill Ellis Barbecue - all of which I’d eaten at some point in my life - weighed heavily on my mind as I closed in on the Skylight Inn for the very first time.
After driving through Raleigh, I was running low on time. Not only was the softball game starting soon about 10 miles away. The restaurant was closing at 7:00 p.m., just when the game was starting.
With about 20 minutes to spare, I finally worked my way into the small gravel parking lot in front of the Skylight. There were only a couple people eating inside as I worked my way to the front door.
As I walked in, I quickly noticed something painted on one of the front glass windows:
No Credit Cards
Since I rarely keep more than about ten bucks or so in cash in my wallet, I knew I was immediately in trouble. A quick glance in my wallet showed two one dollar bills.
What was I to do? Had I driven all this way for absolutely nothing? Do they have an ATM in here? These were the thoughts prevailing in my head as I wondered my way up to the front counter.
A kindly older gentlemen was waiting for me at the front counter. With a weird smile, I explained that I didn’t have enough cash, and did he know if there was an ATM nearby.
“What would you like?” the gentleman said with a twinkle in his eye.
“I don’t have any cash,” I explained.
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said with a chuckle. “I’ve been in your shoes before.”
As he began to scoop me up a heaping plate of chopped barbecue and coleslaw, the man took the time to briefly tell me a story about a time he had traveled approximately 30 miles east to nearby Washington - “Little Washington,” as they call it.
On his way home from Little Washington, the man realized he was on the verge of running out of gas. He stopped at the next station that he saw, but soon discovered that he had only 92 cents in his possession.
“Well, I was just gonna give the man 92 cents and hope for the best,” the man told me. “But when I went inside to pay the 92 cents, the man at the counter said to fill my car up.”
This simple, kind gesture made quite an impression on the old man at the Skylight Inn. So much so that he decided to return the favor on me, a complete stranger.
I’ve heard it called “Paying it Forward.” This gentleman called it “Paying It Ahead.”
“I always remembered that man filling up my car,” the man behind the counter said. “And I said to myself that if I ever got a chance to pay it ahead to someone else sometime, I would.”
Within minutes, I found myself sitting at a table in one of North Carolina’s best barbecue restaurants, enjoying a delicious slab of pork, cole slaw, and a huge piece of something that could be considered a combination of cornbread and corn sticks.
As I sat enjoying this outstanding food, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other out-of-town schmucks like me had walked into the Skylight Inn over the decades, with just 20 minutes to spare before closing time with no cash.
And how many free meals that kindly old man - Bruce Jones, the sone of the Skylight Inn’s founder, Pete Jones - had given away to strangers over the years.
As I left, I told Bruce I would find a way to reimburse him - even if I had to bring him the money the following day.
“Don’t make no special trip or nothing,” he said as I waved goodbye.
Paying it Forward…….
What happened at the Skylight Inn consumed my thoughts that evening, even as I enjoyed one of the most intense and hard-fought softball games I’ve ever seen. And I made the decision on the way home that night that I would pay it forward myself, the very next day.
So it was that the following day - with the Enterprise deadline met for another week - that I got back in my car, and went all the way back to Ayden.
This time I walked into the Skylight Inn with plenty of cash for all the things I’d wanted the night before - a jar of sauce, a couple pounds to put in my freezer for this summer’s barbecue cravings, and a T-shirt.
I also had an extra $20 bill in my pocket the following day that I quietly stuck in the tip jar as I was being served. My server that time was Pete Jones’ grandson, Sam Jones. I sincerely hope he got that cash - the cash I should have given to his father the night before - and enjoyed spending it on something that he likes.
Most fortunately, it appears that the Skylight Inn may have a chance of bucking the trend and emerging as one of the few prominent eastern North Carolina barbecue restaurants to stay in business. Sam Jones, Bruce’s son and Pete’s grandson, has stepped up to the plate, and appears ready to take the business into the future. Along with the Skylight Inn, Jones also recently opened another nearby barbecue restaurant - Sam Jones Barbecue.
I didn’t write all this to tell you about my noble gesture in driving all the way to Ayden twice to give a stranger a generous tip.
I wrote this to remind everyone reading it that there are still generous, good people in this world. People who will welcome you in and give you a complimentary meal and make you feel special even if you haven’t earned such special treatment.
Sometimes you have to go miles out of your way to find such special places, and such special people. But I think you’ll find the adventure to be worth your while. Especially if its an old-school barbecue restaurant in a world where old-school barbecue restaurants seem to be vanishing with regularity.