AYDEN, NC. — In 1830, a gentleman named Skilton Dennis smoked several pigs for a church gathering in this town, serving the pork from the back of a wagon. John T. Edge wrote in his book “Southern Belly” that Dennis is widely regarded as “hosting one of the first commercial barbecues in the state.” Seven generations later, the Jones family remains in the business, the family’s temple to the pig now called The Skylight Inn.
Driving into Ayden, the restaurant’s most notable feature is its rotunda, a replica of the U.S. Capitol that sits atop the restaurant, complete with Old Glory flapping proudly. The rotunda was constructed in 1979 after National Geographic named The Skylight Inn “the barbecue capital of the world.” Capital, capitol — what difference could one letter make?
After marveling at the rotunda, enter the restaurant and order a sandwich or a “tray.” Thursday through Saturday, barbecued chicken is available. And that’s it. Perched behind the counter is a cutting board, concave as a punch bowl. A heat lamp warms a spectacular heap of chopped pork. You’ll order this, at which point the server will fork the meat into a paper tray with a rhythmic scrape-and-pack. He’ll press the meat into the tray with the back of his fork just to pack more pork in. Then he’ll slap two dense, unleavened corncakes on top, and above that, a tray of white coleslaw. You hand the gentleman a five dollar bill, and he hands you this meal-in-a-stack.
The pork contains multiple textures in every bite: tender, slow-smoked meat, crunchy squares of skin, the chewier rind, gelatinous bits of fat and collagen, all roughly minced into porcine floss.
By itself, the food is no frills and fine. Constructing those expertly packed ingredients into a corncake-barbecue sandwich is revelatory. Stack pork atop corncake, then a spoon of coleslaw. Give a few wrist-flicks of vinegar-pepper dip and three dots of of Texas Pete hot sauce. Take a bite along the cornbread’s crisp outer edge. It’s a perfect, life-affirming bite.