AYDEN, N.C. – I was on the phone with my wife when I took my place at the back of the line last week at The Skylight Inn. From deeper inside the restaurant, on the other side of the counter, a man pounded out a beat. THWAP-THWAP-THWAP-TH-TH-TH-THWAP-THWAP. “Is someone playing drums?” my wife asked. No, I told her. That was the sound Tommy Lee would make if handed a cleaver and a cutting board.
By the time I arrived at the counter, the percussive chopping had produced a pile of pork that covered the majority of a 2-foot-wide board. Next to the erstwhile pig lay great hunks of perfect, salty cornbread. Some of the people in front of me ordered Trays – pork, slaw and cornbread. Some ordered in bulk. Three generations of ladies retired to a table and scooped their portions into their own plastic containers and shared barbecue and family gossip. The first of those three generations needed four tries before she finally heard that Dante got his driver’s license.
This is eastern North Carolina, so the hogs started whole and then got chopped into hunks. At the Skylight Inn, cracklins intermingle with the meat.The occasional crunch is entirely intentional. The pork doesn’t need accompaniment, but a bath in the thin, vinegar-based sauce produces an entirely different flavor explosion. The cornbread, which exists structurally between loaf and cake, provides the perfect backbone. A hungry man could take two giant slabs of that cornbread, wrap them around a scoop of that pork, drizzle them with sauce and take a bite, but he would probably die of happiness. And then, at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter would deny admission because the act that ended our hungry man’s life was just too sinful.