A tradition like no other
By Lee Pace
Among the much-revered culinary traditions in golf are the pimento cheese sandwiches at The Masters, the “burgerdog” at The Olympic Club (essentially an elongated hamburger served in a toasted hot dog bun), the snapper soup at Pine Valley (thick with nuggets of turtle and finished with a dollop of sherry), and the peanut butter and bacon sandwiches at the halfway house at Mountain Lake in Florida.
And then you have the pork chop at the Pine Crest Inn in the village of Pinehurst.
“The pork chop is as much a rite of passage of visiting Pinehurst as four-putting one of the greens on Pinehurst No. 2,” says Steven Lilly, an annual visitor along with up to 28 fellow Davidson College graduates.
“At the ’99 U.S. Open, we had 1,600 pork chops go through that kitchen. That’s a lot of pork,” adds Marie Hartsell, a longtime cook at Pine Crest, which opened in 1913.
The 22-ounce porterhouse pork chop is among the “classic entrees” listed on the menu of the Pine Crest, which was owned in the early days by golf architect Donald Ross and has been in the Barrett family for six decades.
“Fork-tender served with mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables and natural pan gravy. A Pine Crest Inn tradition for over 60 years!” the menu reads.
The pork chop was the creation of longtime chef Carl Jackson, who started in the kitchen as a boy in the 1930s, worked his way up to chef, and was an institution at the inn until his death in 1998 at the age of 77. Nephew Peter Jackson took over for Carl, and Carl’s grandson Kiyatta Jackson works in the Pine Crest kitchen today.
“The pork chop has been a leader on the menu all these years,” says Peter Barrett, son of Bob Barrett, the Ohio newspaperman who bought the inn in 1961. “Carl had a special pot, and he braised them in an old pizza oven big enough to hold the pan. He’d get about 24 in a pan.”
Lilly has ordered the pork chop three nights in a row for 30 years during his annual trip to Pinehurst. He estimates one-third of their group will order the pork chop every night at dinner.
“Over the years, we have noticed the presentation changes,” Lilly says. “Sometimes a plate, sometimes a shallow bowl, perhaps differing ingredients in the au-jus vegetable medley. But the tender, slow-roasted chop, which seems to fall from the bone moments before the fork (never the knife!) even makes contact, remains a constant.”
Pedro Martinez-Fonts is one of a dozen close friends originally from Cuba who migrated to the United States in the early 1960s to get away from the Castro communist regime. They have been meeting at the Pine Crest Inn every May for more than two decades.
“The pork chop reminds me of when we used to roast a pig, covered with banana leaves, on my grandfather’s farm in Cuba,” he says. “Not only is it a generous cut that can feed more than one Cuban, but it is also tender and full of flavor. Of all the times we have stayed at the Pine Crest, I have seen only one Cuban, the late Bobby Perkins, who could handle one of these pork chops by himself.”
Harman Switzer was part of a group of a dozen golfers based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, who visited the Pine Crest annually from 1974 through 2019 until age got the better of them. “The people, the porch and the pork chop kept drawing us back,” he says. “And I haven’t missed a chop in that time. I must admit, at 78 years of age, one 22-ounce serving is sufficient for the week. But there was a time when one was not enough.”
On one occasion one of their members brought his wife to experience the pork chop.
“She was so rightfully impressed with chef Carl’s creation that she asked to speak with him, unashamedly in search of the recipe,” Switzer says. “Chef Carl immediately appeared from the kitchen and delightfully began to expound on the hours of marinade and slow cooking. Whereupon the lady politely inquired about the sauce ingredients. To which chef Carl also politely responded, ‘Oh sorry, that’s a secret sauce.’ Which, to my knowledge, remains a Jackson family secret today.”
Indeed it does, though snippets of the presentation have emerged over the years.
Jackson used to buy all his meat from a butcher shop in Boston, but now the chops come from an institutional distributor. They used to come with a layer of fat that’s now trimmed off. Barrett says Jackson cooked them at 225 degrees all day, but now they’re braised at 350 degrees for a slightly shorter period. The corn, okra, onions and carrots are visible dancing around the meat on the shallow serving bowl, but the broth is the finishing touch. Insiders will admit to there being salt, pepper and paprika, but no one is certain whether V8 Juice, tomato juice and/or Campbell’s tomato soup are part of the elixir.
In June 2022 I visited the Pine Crest for three nights with a group from Chapel Hill and mentioned to the guys as we sat down for dinner that the pork chop was the specialty of the house. All six of us ordered the pork chop, and an hour later were wheeled out to our beds, sated and happy. One in our group commandeered the meager leftovers (six bones with a little meat hanging about) to take home to his 75-pound dog, Ernie.
“Ernie was joyously grateful, especially to those who’d left a little meat on theirs,” Steve reported.
Kiyatta Jackson, known as “Yacht” and now a breakfast cook at the Pine Crest, says he’ll honor his grandfather’s wishes that his recipe remain a secret. But at least someone knows the ingredients and the process for generating the Pine Crest’s signature dish and, when a new chef comes through, they’re given chapter and verse about the most popular choice on the menu.
“We might have made our last visit as a group, but I’ve been back myself twice in the last year,” says Switzer, who lives on Callawassie Island near Hilton Head. “It’s always good for a special occasion — a birthday, anniversary, wedding. Or sometimes seeking sanctuary from a low country storm.
“There are lots of excuses for visiting the Pine Crest and enjoying a drink on the porch and savoring the pork chop — the latter being the celebratory culmination of the journey.” PS
Lee Pace has written about the Pinehurst experience for more than three decades from his home in Chapel Hill. Write him at email@example.com and follow him @LeePaceTweet.