Best Kept Secrets: Surry County’s Sonker
If there’s one thing Southerners know how to do well, it’s eat. And rare is the meal that doesn’t include a little something sweet.
From a buttery pastry on the breakfast table to a glass of tea that accompanies lunch to an after-dinner dessert, North Carolina sees the value of adding a spoonful of sugar – or even more – to everyday life.
Sweets are part of the Southern heritage, and no place celebrates its sugary history more than Surry County and its love of sonker.
Don’t feel bad if you’re never heard of this cobbler-like dessert, whose silly name sounds like a Doonesbury character or something a “Scooby-Doo” character might say. Many people who grew up nearby in the Foothills north of Winston-Salem aren’t familiar with sonker, either.
The Surry County area seems to be the only place in the world where sonker is made. And here, it’s a legend, even if no one can tell you exactly what the name means. This much is known: Rural families from generations ago put a premium on using every bit of their fruit crops. Whether it was sweet potatoes, apples, strawberries, peaches or blackberries, nothing could go to waste.
So when leftover pieces of fruit started going soft, resourceful cooks figured out a way to blend them with lots of dough, sugar or molasses and bake it into a dessert.
“Each family put their own spin on it,” said Jessica Roberts, director of tourism and marketing for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
Today, Surry celebrates sonker with its annual Sonker Festival, held on the first Saturday in October, and with a “Sonker Trail” tour that includes stops at seven restaurants throughout the area. Three of them are on Main Street in downtown Mount Airy. They include the Down Home Restaurant, which Roberts said features the more traditional “native sonker,” as well as Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies, which offers more unusual variations on the dish.
“It’s developed and really taken off into so many different variations,” Roberts said.
The differences in how to make the dish extend to the name at Miss Angel’s, which calls it both zonka and zonker. Angel Shur, “Miss Angel” herself, also bakes pies, danish, muffins and a variety of other baked goods. She also owns Hillbilly Gluten Free Bake Shop and Ice Cream next door, and is happy to put a scoop of ice cream onto your pie through the window between the businesses.
As for Shur’s take on sonker, consider a popular treat she calls “Bonkers for Zonker.” It’s a peach sonker using homegrown peaches, topped with moonshine. (Yes, Miss Angel’s has a liquor license.)
“You have to be 21 or older to buy it,” Shur said. “It’s pretty potent.”
And it’s likely a long way from what sonker’s creators ever imagined. But it’s just another way Surry County is keeping its unique dessert legacy alive.
▪ Surry Sonker Trail. Get map and go at your own pace. 800-948-0949. sonkertrail.org.
▪ Down Home Restaurant, 243 N. Main St., Mount Airy. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, Closed Sunday. 336-783-0007. www.visitmayberry.com/down-home-restaurant/
▪ Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies, 153 N. Main St., Mount Airy. 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday. 336-786-1537. www.missangelsheavenlypiesinc.com.
Moravian Sugar Cake, Winston-Salem
The first thing you notice about the Moravian Sugar Cake at the Winkler Bakery in Old Salem is the aroma. It’s the almost-overpowering scent of fresh-baked bread, mixed with the distinct smells of sugar, cinnamon and butter. The bakers in period costume in this historic Moravian bakery prepare plenty of other bread and baked goods each day, but the sugar cake is in a class by itself. “It’s everybody’s favorite because it smells so good,” said Tyler Cox, manager of community relations and volunteers at Old Salem, the historic attraction in Winston-Salem. The recipe is the same one that Christian Winkler used more than 200 years ago when he was baker for the Salem religious colony, long before it merged with its more secular neighbor, Winston. The oven is the same one Winkler used, too. Sugar cake is available year-round, but it’s particularly popular around the holidays. About 2,000 sugar cakes a week are sold from the bakery during December. You also can get versions at commercial bakeries in Winston-Salem. “But people want to come here to get it,” Cox said. “I think it’s because of the tradition.” That, and the amazing aroma. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. 521 S. Main St. 336-721-7300. oldsalem.org.
French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Asheville
As you might expect in a mountain town such as Asheville, the French Broad Chocolate Lounge sells a lot of hot chocolate. Not just any hot chocolate, mind you, but the supremely rich Liquid Truffle, available in six flavors including salted caramel and lavender honey. That may sound a little, well, hot for the summer months. That’s why the lounge came up with a winning summer solution known as Liquid Truffle Affogato, in which the heated Liquid Truffle is poured over made-from-scratch ice cream. “The resulting contrast of cool ice cream with warm, creamy chocolate is nothing short of divine,” said Jael Rattigan, who owns French Broad with her husband, Dan. There are plenty of other confections and pastries at the chocolate lounge, its adjacent chocolate boutique and a nearby factory. In addition to all the chocolate, the lounge also serves coffee, beer and wine. “All the vices in one place,” Jael Rattigan noted. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday. 10 S. Pack Square. 828-252-4181. frenchbroadchocolates.com.
Barbecue Center Banana Split, Lexington
In a town synonymous with barbecue, you’d expect a place called the Barbecue Center to be known for its pork. And it certainly is. But for decades, Barbecue Center has had another big claim to fame – and we do mean big. The restaurant’s banana split weighs in at 3 to 3 1/2 pounds and can easily feed four people. The tradition dates to 1955, when the Barbecue Center actually was known as the Dairy Center, said current owner Michael Conrad. (The Coble Dairy was across the street then). Over the years, pork became a featured attraction and Barbecue supplanted Dairy in the name. But the big banana split remained. It’s fascinating to watch it come together, starting with the banana and then three giant scoops of ice cream. (Usually the traditional vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but you’re free to mix it up.) Then comes chocolate syrup, wet walnuts, whipped cream and a cherry on top. All for the relatively non-giant price of $7.95 plus tax. Conrad said the restaurant sells about 800 banana splits a month, and most are eaten by groups of three or more. “But we have a few people who can eat it all by themselves,” he said. With such a big treat, it’s surprising that only one banana is used for the base level. Still, most people never notice. “They rarely get to the banana,” Conrad said. 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Closed Sunday. 900 N. Main St. 336-248-4633. www.facebook.com/barbecuecenter.
Burney’s Glazed Croissants, Clinton, Elizabethtown and Southport
Whether you’re at the original Burney’s in Elizabethtown, the coastal satellite in Southport or the relatively new franchise in Clinton, you’re likely to experience the same morning sensation from customers: Fear that the glazed croissants are going to run out. The always-popular pastries are cooked fresh each morning, with bakers arriving early to start the intricate process of kneading the dough, letting it rise, then frying, glazing and cooling the croissants. Some patrons prefer them filled with strawberries, raspberries or peach; others just like them plain. But either way, when they are gone for the day, they’re gone. “What we are known for is the croissants,” said Megan Scronce of the Clinton store. “Some customers get dozens of them.” Clinton: 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Closed Sunday. 107 Vance St. 910-590-2564. burneysofclinton.com. Elizabethtown: 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Closed Sunday. 106-B Martin Luther King Drive. 910-862-2099. Southport: 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Closed Sunday. 808 N Howe St. 910-454-4222.
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