The Tradition and Beauty of Whole Hog Barbecue, with Michael Pollan

Food writer Michael Pollan recalls his experience at The Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. The owners roast whole hogs in a giant barbecue pit over a 24-hour period.

Michael Pollan: I was looking for the most unreconstructed cooking I could find, cooking as it's been practiced for thousands, if not millions of years. And I found that in Eastern North Carolina whole hog barbecue where there is no sauce to speak of. It's just this animal slow cooked over a fire, wood fire. And the place where I first found it was a barbecue joint in Ayden, North Carolina near the coast called The Skylight Inn. I don't know why it's called The Skylight Inn, there is no skylight. And there is also on top of this building a capitol dome like you see in Washington sitting on top of this building. That didn't' make any sense either except they told me that National Geographic had said they were the capital of barbecue in 1965 and they put up this dome. In The Skylight, The Skylight Inn had a restaurant in front where they're selling barbecue sandwiches. Very few items on the menu but basically barbecue sandwiches, sweet tea, coleslaw, you know, that's basically it.

And in the back were these two structures, buildings made of cinderblock with a metal roof. And in there, in these buildings was the pit room, the barbecue pit. And when you went in Sam, Samuel Jones who was the proprietor says, "Welcome to the vestibule of Hell." And I walk in and we open the door and we're just assaulted by this smoke, this delicious smelling smoke. And inside is a giant fireplace with logs like this. I mean it looks like a giant's fireplace. And the grate is made out of truck axles, that's how big it is. And they're burning down wood to coals and then they're shoveling the coals in these long cinderblock containers that have a grate on top and on top of the grate sit these whole pigs. These pink, you know, pigs with their heads and tails intact, splayed out. And they shovel the coals underneath in an outline of the pig form. And there's a man named Mr. Howell who is the pitmaster who says very little. And he's just kind of wheeling back and forth to the walk in and he's got this wheelbarrow with a piece of bloody plywood on top and he goes back into the backroom and he comes back and there's a dead hog on it.

And he wheels it over, tips it onto the grate, shovels some coals beneath it and the entire room is an oven basically, a low temperature oven, you know. And the animals are cooked at around 200 degrees for over 20 hours this -- goes over night. You can barely see in the room and the pigs look oddly human. I mean they're pink. They're our size. They have these little sly smiles. It's a really kind of upsetting tableau and it's hard to imagine eating what's coming out of this room. But, but come back the next day and those pink alarming carcasses are honey colored, they smell delicious and you develop an appetite for them. And so Mr. Howell carts them into the restaurant and there's a giant chopping block and a man stands behind the chopping block and takes big hunks of this animal and starts chopping it with two cleavers.

The chopping block has been chopped so much that it has a big depression in it from just chopping. So there's wood getting into the barbecue too. And the key of whole hog barbecue is you're not eating the loin or the belly or the shoulder, you're eating all of it cut together. And it's the mix of different cuts, some of them fatty and juicy. Some of them drier, leaner. And the sken as they pronounce it which is kind of salty and, I mean, incredibly captivatingly delicious. It all gets cut together so there's little shards of salt in there with the meat and they chop it until it's fairly fine. And they mix in some apple cider vinegar, some red pepper flakes and a little salt and mix it a little more and then they put it on a sandwich and they sell it for two dollars and seventy-five cents. It's a very democratic treat.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton

Michael Pollan explains the whole hog barbecue traditions of The Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. His latest is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (

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