There was a lot of barbecue talent on the small stage in the convivial top floor beer garden at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in downtown Nashville on Tuesday night, June 25. Third-generation North Carolina pitmaster Sam Jones came to town as part of the book release tour for his new cookbook, Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue with Recipes from Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ. Lucky ticket buyers were treated to a collaborative barbecue buffett prepared by the Martin’s staff using recipes from Jones’s book as well as two sets of old-school country songs performed by Martin McDaniel and his talented band.
While the band took a set break and the crowd was finishing up dining on smoked whole hog sandwiches, baked beans, slaw and potato salad, Jones took the stage for a discussion about his philosophy of barbecue joined by acclaimed pitmaster/restaurateur Pat Martin, the founder of Martin’s Bat-B-Que. The lively presentation was moderated by a local writer, (OK, it was me) who asked the dynamic duo questions about the business and artistry of barbecue.
In addition to being incredibly entertaining storytellers, Jones and Martin are also passionate evangelists for the dying art of whole hog cookery. There are only three restaurants in the state of Tennessee still practicing whole animal barbecue, cooked low and slow for almost an entire day in cinder block pits over charcoal made by burning hickory logs down to smoldering coals. The time and intense effort involved in cooking barbecue this way makes it much less profitable than serving barbecue from gas-powered rotisserie smokers that can pump out hundreds of pounds of pork shoulders in a fraction of the time.
Martin explained, “Barbecue, in general, is a pretty stupid economic model.” Jones called it “financially irresponsible,” but neither pitmaster has any intention of changing their ways. Even though they both wondered why customers who don’t blink at paying $12 for a cheeseburger that takes five minutes to prepare have walked out of their restaurants after discovering a whole hog sandwich costs half as much, they remain committed to the legacy of the art of slow cooking.
Jones shared stories of the outrage that he encountered after he opened his own restaurant separate from the family business Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, NC. As soon as swung open the doors of Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant, he began to experience pushback because he had added a new item to the menu, beer. In addition to running Skylight Inn before Sam entered the business, Sam’s father is a Baptist preacher who has never drunk a drop. Sam recounted an angry woman who double-parked at his drive through window to yell at him, “I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to Hell for selling that beer!”
After a little prompting, Jones told the story of a recent incident that got him all over the news in his hometown. In his inimitable Southern drawl, he described being stopped at a rental car counter in Orlando when the worker behind the counter mistook him as a criminal who had stolen two cars from the company. “For just a minute, I thought this might have been a joke by somebody like Pat!” Martin admitted, “It sounds like something I would have done…”
Jones made it as far as being handcuffed in the back of a policeman’s car before the misunderstanding was finally worked out. The normally affable Jones admitted, “I had a little case of the red-ass, and I asked that rental car guy ever so kindly if he would give me a ride to another rental car place and a reservation.”
The pair of pitmasters finished the evening by answering a short series of rapid fire questions, and showed a remarkable degree of unanimity on crucial topics. Both preferred George Jones over Conway Twitty, whiskey over beer (although Martin asked if wine could be an option) and tea over lemonade. Their most adamant agreement came over the critical question of whether coleslaw should be served on top of a barbecue sandwich. “It’s in the bible,” avowed Jones. “In red letters!” added Martin.
After the entertaining conversation was over, the band kicked in again, and Jones greeted a long line of his fans waiting to get their books signed. Even if you missed out on the chance to meet this legend of whole hog, you can still purchase a copy of his book filled with recipes and the sorts of stories he shared on stage. It’s available online or at many local bookstores. Or even better, you can make the pilgrimage to Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant in Greenville, NC and possibly meet the master in person!