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Wood: The soul of barbecue

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 11:00 AM

At the crossroads of where-am-I and what-era-is-this in sorta Eastern and kinda Central North Carolina, along the side of a lonely road, in a spit of a town (population itsy-bitsy), art is being made inside a squat, nondescript little brick building.

At the Skylight Inn here in Ayden, pit masters are smoking whole hog over wood, and that certainly qualifies as art in these parts.

On a billboard outside is the image of Pete Jones, the late and much-revered former owner and pit master who opened the place in 1947. The billboard, which Jones erected years before his death in 2006, shows the face of the proud pit man looking out at the highway with a serious look on his face. What did Jones feel the need to say on a billboard for any passerby to see? Just this: "If it's not cooked with wood it's not bar-b-q."

Debate all you want about types of meat, varieties of sauce, kinds of smokers. One thing that can't be argued is that the soul of barbecue is wood.

"My granddaddy would say, 'I can put enough sauce on a napkin till somebody'll eat it,'" Samuel Jones, Pete's grandson, told me. "Barbecue isn't the sauce. It's the meat, the wood-smoked meat."

Jones, 29, is manager of the Skylight Inn and a true believer in the knowledge passed down by the ancients. A lot of restaurants use gas- or electric-fired ovens that smolder a log or two and call those ovens "pits" and call the meat that comes from them "barbecue." Not the Skylight.

"You either cook with wood or you don't," Jones says. "You can't imitate barbecue without wood. It's just not the same."

The Skylight goes through three cords of wood per week. Red and white oak, mostly. A little hickory, but not much, Jones says, or the taste will turn bitter.

At 4 p.m., workers put wood into a fireplace and let it burn down to embers. Around 5 p.m., they shovel the hot coals into horizontal brick pits with steel lids. Then they set whole hogs about two feet above the embers and lightly smoke them for 15 hours. Meanwhile, they burn more wood in the fireplace and add its smoldering coals to the cooking pit throughout the evening.

"We just keep putting coals on top of coals on top of coals till around 11 p.m.," Jones says. "At midnight, my Uncle Jeff puts his hand on that pig. He looks for that skin to be drawn up around the shank of the legs. He checks the fire. Just uses his hand. We don't own a thermometer."

The only seasoning the Skylight uses is salt. "To draw the moisture out of the skin, so it will blister and make it crispy," says Jones, adding that although they sprinkle a vinegar-based pepper sauce onto the meat as they chop it before serving, the seasoning on the hog as it cooks is kept minimal for a reason. "We want you to appreciate the fact that we worked our patoots off getting meat to taste this good."

Even as the era of labor-intensive wood-smoked barbecue wanes commercially, an appreciation for the flavor that wood smoking imparts to food seems more popular than ever among home cooks.

It used to be that you went to the store, bought a bag of charcoal, squirted it with lighter fluid in a kettle cooker, and that was pretty much that. Nowadays, you have a forest full of hardwood choices: chips of alder, apple, cherry; chunks of mesquite, oak, hickory.

Each wood imparts a slightly different flavor to the food you grill or smoke. Oak, for example, burns mild and slow and is often used for indirect smoking of bigger meats that take a long time to cook, such as brisket and pork shoulder.

Hickory burns hotter than oak and, as Jones said, can give food a slightly bitter taste if not used properly. That is why Jones mixes in only a small amount. Other barbecuers like hickory's properties and learn how to work with it by letting it burn down to coals before using.

Mesquite burns fast and hot and can leave an acrid taste. But when used for grilling quick-cooking foods such as steak and fish, it adds a tantalizingly earthy flavor. Fruit woods add a pleasant sweet taste to foods, including vegetables, while alder adds a delicate flavor that goes nicely with seafood.

I can buy these woods in little bags at supermarkets, specialty stores and hardware stores. But as a wood fetishist, I like to walk around commercial wood sellers. A favorite is the Firewood Factory in Bladensburg, which sells wood to the general public and to restaurants such as Sonoma, Ella's Wood Fired Pizza, Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Source and the Texas-style barbecue joint Capitol Q.

I get excited just seeing the rows of neatly stacked split hardwoods. I get practically giddy as I wander around the soldier-straight kindling in plastic milk cartons, the clear-plastic bundled rolls of split woods, the sloping mountain of wood beneath a black tarp and the white burlap bags stuffed with a big chunks of various hardwoods.

Bennie Meeks, 73, is the owner. He is not around on this particular day. Minding the store is his son, Tony Meeks, a lean, tall man who swears he doesn't know anywhere near as much about wood as his father. But as he explains the properties of various woods, it's clear he knows plenty. He holds a "split" of wood and shows me the band of white along its perimeter that helps define white oak. He picks up a different split and shows me the light red hue, one of the properties of red oak.

When I start trying to guess which wood is which, he says you can't tell by the color alone. "Depends on how long it's been seasoned," he says.

Seasoned wood is dried wood, with a moisture content of about 20 percent. Wood is dried in a kiln or in the open. If in the latter, it is generally considered seasoned if it is over a year old after cutting.

But wood color depends on the duration of seasoning and exposure to the sun. Meeks nods toward a stack of gray wood, all of which looks the same to me. "There's poplar, walnut, cherry, locust in there," he says. "You can't just look at the color. You also have to look at the bark," and he launches into a dissertation on thickness, grooves, patterns. Before long, he's using terms like "opening up" and "heat dissipation."

Wood-smoking meat is a highly inexact art, Meeks says. The fire is affected by the type, age and size of the wood, by the moisture in the air, by the day's temperature, by the wind. Meeks sympathizes. "You've got to know your wood," he says. "Be familiar with it."

I buy a 50-pound bag of mixed hardwoods for $12 and drive home, anticipating what I am going to grill and smoke. I might not make a masterpiece. But I have the feeling that if Pete Jones could see me now, he'd be smiling.

Recipes

Applewood-Smoked Butternut Squash

Grilled Peppered Steak Over Mesquite

Pecan-Smoked Beer Can Chicken

Shahin writes more about barbecue every Tuesday on the All We Can Eat blog, www.washingtonpost.com/allwecaneat.

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