Garner: Six generations of barbecue
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Pitt County is home to world-class eastern North Carolina barbecue.
But there probably aren’t many who realize that different branches of the same family have cooked and sold barbecue in the Ayden area alone for more than 150 years. In fact, two of the best barbecue joints in North Carolina can be found within the Ayden city limits.
Not only that — a third, newer place a few miles up the road in Greenville is serving old-timey, wood-cooked barbecue from that very same family heritage.
What are the odds of that sort of connection and continuity?
The owners of The Skylight Inn, Bum’s Restaurant and Sam Jones BBQ all trace their beginnings to common ancestor Skilten Dennis, who began selling barbecue to camp meeting groups around Ayden from the back of a covered wagon sometime in the mid-1800s.
The connection between Skilten Dennis and the present-day Bum’s Restaurant is fairly direct. Patriarch Dennis’ son and grandson carried on his same enterprise, with grandson Bill eventually selling barbecue at an early Ayden curb market. Bill’s wife slaughtered, dressed and pit-cooked pigs at home on their farm, sending the cooked barbecue to town by wagon.
In 1941, John Bill Dennis — the fourth successive generation of Dennis pit masters — built a trailer on the site of the present Bum’s restaurant in Ayden, replacing it with a permanent structure, the J.B. Dennis Café, in 1948.
A cousin, Latham “Bum” Dennis eventually bought the cafe and renamed it Bum’s Restaurant in the 1960s.
And the Skylight Inn? Well, Walter B. “Pete” Jones, another Skilton Dennis descendant, opened the place in another part of Ayden in the late 1940s. Pete didn’t have the same continuous barbecue legacy as the other Dennis family branch, but did have a childhood dream of running his own barbecue restaurant.
And so it was that Pete’s place and what would later become Bum’s Restaurant began vying for barbecue acclaim — not only in the same town and county, but across eastern North Carolina and beyond.
What the two restaurants share, and have always shared, is an insistence on pit-cooking whole hogs directly over wood coals: mostly oak, with maybe a little hickory mixed in.
Meat juices drip directly onto the hot coals and produce aromatic bursts of steam, creating unparalleled flavor. Extra coals are shoveled under a roasting hog near the end of the cooking cycle in order to raise the overall cooking temperature and “crisp up” the pig’s skin. Chopped and mixed into the barbecue, the crackling skin is a huge part of the secret at both The Skylight Inn and Bum’s Restaurant.
The Skylight Inn unapologetically offers a straightforward, limited menu: barbecue sandwiches and trays, coleslaw, baked cornbread and beverages. No sides, no desserts.
By contrast, Bum’s Restaurant — now largely under the management of son Larry Dennis — serves a memorable selection of down-home favorites along with the barbecue. In addition to what may be the world’s best collard greens, the menu includes such delights as Brunswick stew, rutabagas, cabbage, fried and barbecued chicken, seafood, chicken and pastry and incredible banana pudding.
Sam Jones, Pete’s grandson, grew up working at The Skylight Inn, which he still helps run. Now, he also has his own place, Sam Jones BBQ in Greenville, where he serves the same whole-hog, wood-cooked barbecue that made The Skylight famous. There are also tasty new side dishes and other barbecue meat choices that have never been on the menu at the original restaurant.
There is probably no other place in the entire country with a specific barbecue history as strong as the one surrounding these three restaurants…all within a few miles of one another.
Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.