North Carolina’s Barbecue Baron

Sam Jones on keeping faith with tradition—and breaking it

Photo: Denny Culbert

Sam Jones at the concrete-block barbecue pit he built in the backyard of his Ayden, North Carolina, home.

In 1947, a tough, hardworking seventeen-year-old named Pete Jones opened the Skylight Inn, a little drive-up in tiny Ayden, North Carolina. Though he couldn’t read or write, Jones turned it into one of the South’s most revered shrines to whole-hog barbecue. He probably wouldn’t have predicted, however, that his grandson would take the family legacy to new heights. But Sam Jones has surprised a lot of people: He’s traveled all over the country smoking barbecue, and, in addition to the original Skylight Inn, he runs the more modern Sam Jones BBQ, which he opened near Greenville in 2015. Now he’s also an author. His new book, Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue, cowritten with Daniel Vaughn, is more than a collection of coveted recipes. It’s also the story of a man who learned reverence for his roots, and when to go beyond them.

Higher Education

“Barbecue is completely defined by geography. Where I grew up, you do whole hog over wood, and if you don’t do that, it’s not barbecue. Billy Graham himself couldn’t save you if you didn’t do whole hog over wood. I was fortunate to get to travel and meet people of all walks of life and realize that just because someone’s got a different perspective doesn’t mean I’m wrong and it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We still cook whole hogs over wood; those core values haven’t changed. But there’s always somebody that can teach you something.”

Grass Roots

“Tradition in my family was, you went to that restaurant or you went to the farm and you physically, with your own two hands, produced something. When you grew up, you had to work. I remember my dad on a Saturday morning, when I was seven or eight years old—he’s getting ready to leave for the restaurant and he says, ‘Your uncle Gerald will be by this morning to show you how to mow the grass.’ And he left to go to work. Ever since then, I made sure my mom and dad’s grass is mowed.”

Home Truth

“Don’t ever forget your roots, whether you agree with them or not. They’ve influenced you in some way, at your core. I consider myself super fortunate. I live on the same farm I grew up on. A lot of times, when people come from small, rural areas, they are forced to go somewhere else to find success. When I first got the opportunity to travel, I was green, I was ashamed of Skylight. I was ashamed of where I came from. It took a few years to realize everybody came from somewhere. Today I’m proud to be from Ayden, North Carolina.”