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'Everybody can do some good': Culinary connections serve region after hurricane

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Pitmaster and restaurant co-owner, Sam Jones, whose T-shirt reads "JUST BE NICE," talks about the culinary community's contributions to North Carolina's hurricane relief efforts. "It's not about how many meals (you serve)," he said. "It's about the one that made a difference."

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 14, 2018

As Florence churned toward the North Carolina coast, Sam Jones knew it was time to hang up his pitmaster's apron and put on his fireman's helmet. Canceling culinary events in Atlanta, Nashville and Charleston, Jones, Ayden's fire chief, remained at the station to be ready to help his community.

But when he put his apron back on after the storm had passed, it was not to go to work at the Winterville barbecue restaurant that bears his name. Instead, Jones headed off to Wilmington to be part of hurricane relief efforts. The 38-year-old, fourth-generation barbecue man joined Operation BBQ Relief, an organization of barbecue chefs and other volunteers who work to bring hot meals to areas affected by disasters.

Florence has brought North Carolina a flood of response from the food industry. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse helped raise nearly $125,000 for relief efforts at a private dinner in Raleigh. José Andrés, who served millions of meals in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year, brought his World Central Kitchen to Wilmington to feed people in the wake of the hurricane. Celebrated North Carolina chefs and restaurateurs, including Ashley Christensen, Vivian Howard and Jones, contributed to Coming Together for the Coast, a hurricane relief benefit that raised thousands of dollars earlier this month.

“The culinary community as a whole is a very tight-knit group of people,” Jones said. “The majority of them are so big-hearted that it just breaks their skin.”

A case in point is Harrison Sapp, co-owner and pitmaster of Southern Soul Barbeque in St. Simons Island, Ga. Sapp called Jones days before Florence was expected to make landfall to see how he could help his friend. Though Jones said he should stay put, Sapp drove from Georgia to Ayden, where he helped prepare three meals a day for fire and rescue workers, police and members of the National Guard. (Grateful recipients of those meals surprised Sapp by contributing $547 toward his Firebox Initiative, which helps members of the hospitality industry who are struggling due to illness, injury or other unforeseen circumstances.)

Less than a week after the storm, Jones decided it was time to pay it forward. Canceling an appearance in South Carolina, he called on friends and co-workers to help him make 100 gallons of barbecue sauce. Then he contacted Cheney Brothers CEO Byron Russell to ask for a case of whole beef loin (Jones purchased the second case), and he set out for Wilmington. With many roads closed due to flooding, what is ordinarily about a two-hour drive took nearly six.

Once he arrived, Jones joined forces with Operation BBQ Relief. Founded in May 2011 in response to tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., the organization has since deployed nearly 7,000 volunteers to disasters in 25 states. Jones had met Operation BBQ Relief co-founders Stan Hays and Will Cleaver at Big Apple Barbecue in Manhattan.

“You talk about producing; they were serving upward of 30,000 meals a day,” Jones said. “It's like setting up a fair, what they had. It occupied almost a whole Kmart parking lot. There's 14 smokers running all these vats cooking stuff. It's just like ants.”

For his part, Jones stood cooking a big pot of red beans and rice rather than smoking pork loin or pork shoulder. He didn't mind the work.

“I'm not above doing anything,” he said. “I'll clean the toilet if that's what needs to be done.”

In Wilmington, Jones saw both sides of the storm. He watched volunteers come together to serve strangers in need. But he also witnessed people taking advantage of others’ kindness. One woman took hundreds of meals from Operation Barbecue Relief that she was to deliver in her flooded community. Instead, she was caught selling them.

In the Rocky Point community near Hampstead, homeowners had to arm themselves and take turns keeping watch because looters were coming in on boats and stealing from them. Jones was with a group of volunteers that traveled to Rocky Point to serve the organization’s 2 millionth meal.

Still, he couldn't help but feel like there was something more he could do. Jones recalled a message he had received on social media from a man in Jones County who was a big fan of Sam Jones BBQ. Travis Wethington had written to ask Jones if the restaurant in Winterville was open. Wethington was hoping to find a clear route to Pitt County so that he could bring some food to his community, which had been cut off by the storm.

“There's a lot of little towns that nobody knows about, little communities,” Jones said. “Eastern North Carolina, per square mile, is rural, and as you saw in this last storm, it didn't take but one little blip, and it ain't on the news anymore. Nobody cares anymore, and those people get forgotten about.

“If you haven't ever worked it, experienced it, lived it, you don't understand.”

Jones, who has lived in Ayden his whole life, could relate. He remembers the devastation that followed Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Jones, who was 19 at the time, was already in his third year as a volunteer firefighter.

“I joined the fire department when I was 16 in '96, but that was in Black Jack,” he said, laughing. “At the time, you had to be 18 in Ayden.”

He remembers at age 12 racing to save his grandfather's horses after fire broke out in the stable. He watched firefighters work together to try to extinguish the blaze.

“I think every little boy wants to be a police officer or a firefighter,” Jones said. “When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a career firefighter. I hated the restaurant with a passion.”

His feelings about the restaurant business changed, but his zeal for firefighting never did. A firefighter for more than half his life, he has been Ayden fire chief for five years.

If there was a way to help bring food to Jones County after Hurricane Florence, he thought he would find it through the local fire department. He called Frankie Eubank, assistant fire chief for the Pollocksville Volunteer Fire Department. Equipped with a generator and a walk-in cooler, the department was cooking for first responders and anyone who was left in the cut-off community.

“We kind of made stone soup every day,” Eubank said.“ Neighbors would have freezers that they were going to lose their summer stock of vegetables. They were going to lose everything.”

When Jones learned about the situation in Pollocksville, he packed his truck with Operation BBQ Relief meals for 400 people and made the two-hour trip from Wilmington. He was going to deliver food, if it meant loading a boat to get it there.

With one of the highways just reopened, Jones was able to drive into town, but he was not prepared for what he saw. The area, which had economic struggles before the storm, was devastated.

“Now everything is totaled out, essentially,” Jones said. “They didn't even hardly have food to eat. The local fire department had to be the police department. (They) wore guns because the law couldn't get to their town. The first 48 hours, they had no radio communication, no cell phones, no nothing, completely alienated and on an island. Nobody could get to them.”

When Jones returned the following day with 400 more meals, Eubank was overwhelmed. There was more food than the department needed, enough to share with folks in nearby Trenton. 

“We'd never met, but I'd always heard good things about their family,” Eubank said of Jones. “I liked their barbecue. I'd seen him on ‘Pitmasters,’ but I didn't realize how deeply he cared about folks until we met.

“I think there is a connection with a small town and brotherhood with the fire department,” Eubank said. “There's been such an outpouring of love and support from all over the country, but his is special.”

Jones told his new friends to let him know if he could help them after the initial recovery effort was over. He meant it.

“So many people rush to the limelight, and as soon as the tides of the storm recede, so do those people,” he said. “They forget about what it left, especially when it's not in the big city.

“I'm from a small town,” Jones said. “I said, 'When that time comes, if I can help, let me know.'”

The fire department has called on Jones to make one more food delivery. On Oct. 27, he will provide dinner for hundreds of people attending the annual Pollocksville Big Game Hunt.

Before Jones stepped up, fire department officials had thought they might have to cancel the event.

“The local folks just really look forward to it,” Eubank said. “We were kind of debating whether we should attempt it or not. I didn't want to ask anyone for anything because of what they had lost.”

The event, a tradition for 25 years, is the fire department's biggest fundraiser of the year. Jones is having to miss another promotional appearance to be there, but he is glad to do it.

“Because you achieve something doesn't mean you should keep it all to yourself,” he said.

“Everybody can do some good, not just for hurricane relief but in general. You don't have to be a cook. You ain't got to be a millionaire or an orator. ... Everybody possesses some type of talent or skill. There is something you can do.”

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