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Wood: The soul of barbecue

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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.

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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.

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