Ayden, a southern Pitt County town of just over 5,000 residents, has a global reputation for two staples of the Southern table: barbecue and collards.
Barbecue, corn bread and slaw from The Skylight Inn in Ayden. (Web photo)
In 1830, Skilton Dennis of Pitt County opened what may have been the first commercial barbecue business in the United States when he sold pit-cooked pork and slabs of corn bread at a large church camp meeting in Otter Town (present-day Ayden). He also sold his barbecue from the back of a chuck wagon on court day. Skilton's descendants, Pete Jones and Latham "Bum" Dennis, each opened successful barbecue restaurants in Ayden. Bum's and Skylight Inn still sell whole hog barbecue cooked over wood in cook houses behind the restaurants. Foodies from around the globe join locals to stand in line for the traditional eastern North Carolina barbecue, which is chopped and sauced with a tangy mixture of vinegar and pepper.
The Skylight Inn (Web photo)
The Skylight Inn is a recipient of a James Beard Award and, because of decades of accolades and media exposure, has become one of the must-visit barbecue joints in the country.
Bum's Restaurant (Photo by Bee There Media)
In addition to pit-cooked pork barbecue, Bum’s Restaurant serves a variety of country-style food including freshly prepared collards grown in Bum’s own garden. Because of its renowned barbecue tradition, Ayden will host the 2016 "Kings of Q" BBQ Cook-off May 21. The contest is named in honor of the local “Kings of Q" Dennis and Jones and is a North Carolina State Championship sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Vickie and Benny Cox sell yellow cabbage collards at The Collard Shack in Ayden. (Web photo)
The collards grown in the Ayden area, yellow cabbage collards, are prized throughout the South for their mild taste. Production of cabbage collards began locally in 1887 when an Asheville greenhouse proprietor noticed that his regular collard plants responded to the eastern North Carolina soil by growing a bit shorter and more cabbage-like. Local growers pass down their cabbage collard seeds from generation to generation. Vickie and Benny Cox sell cabbage collard seeds and bedding plants at The Collard Shack, 4639 S. Lee St., Ayden. Collards thrive in the well-drained, nutrient-rich soil of eastern North Carolina, and they grow year-round in the mild climate.
Ayden Collard Festival parade (Web photo)
To honor the popular vegetable, Ayden holds its Collard Festival the week after Labor Day. The festival, first held in 1975, includes a collard-eating contest, pageants, parade, musical entertainment and amusement rides.