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[caption id="attachment_159070" align="alignright" width="300"] Anchored owner Samantha Coleman is a third-generation sonker maker who brings a modern sensibility to her classic family recipes.[/caption] Samantha Coleman loves tradition, but she also

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[caption id="attachment_159070" align="alignright" width="300"] Anchored owner Samantha Coleman is a third-generation sonker maker who brings a modern sensibility to her classic family recipes.[/caption] Samantha Coleman loves tradition, but she also

The Sonkers of Surry County

Anchored owner Samantha Coleman is a third-generation sonker maker who brings a modern sensibility to her classic family recipes. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Samantha Coleman loves tradition, but she also loves doing things her own way. Anchored Sweet Treats & Savory Eats, her bakery on Moore Avenue in downtown Mount Airy, reflects that combination with seafoam green walls and decor as modern as an urban coffee shop. But inside the shop’s case of baked goods are large pans that look like the ones you’d pull from a home oven, edges crusty and bubbling with fruit. They’re full of Coleman’s take on the famous Surry County sonker. “I was born and raised in Surry County,” she says. “My grandmother and mother made sonker. It’s a simple dessert, seasonal and local.”

Simple, yes, but, oh, what you can do with it! And on that idea hangs the Surry Sonker Trail, which winds through the county and highlights recipes ranging from down-home goodness to sophisticated flavors suitable for fine dining. No one knows how or why Surry County became the center of the sonker world. A “Hungry for History” road marker erected in Dobson in April offers little clue: It simply describes sonker as a “unique dessert thought to originate in Surry County in mid- 1800s. Similar to cobbler. Made with dough and fruit or sweet potato.”

The cherry sonker at Anchored Sweet Treats and Savory Eats looks so crispy and soupy-good, folks are liable to eat it right out of the pan. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

No-fuss sonker could feed a crowd and use any combination of fruits that a home cook had around. Instead of going to the trouble of rolling out a crust or cutting biscuits for the top, early cooks made a simple batter of milk, eggs, butter, flour, and sugar, poured it into a baking pan, and added fresh fruit. Originally, sonker was made in the same pans used for biscuits, which were three to four inches deep and sized to fit in a wood-burning oven. Using what was available might account for sweet potato being the classic sonker flavor, since those were on hand even in winter. Mysteriously, traditional sonker is served with something called a “dip,” which isn’t actually a dip but a sugar-milk sauce that’s poured over individual servings.

As for the name sonker, some food historians think that it’s a version of the word “sinker,” because the fruit sinks to the bottom of the batter as the sonker bakes. Others say that the name may have come from a Scots Gaelic term for a bumpy knoll or saddle, referring to the irregular crust on top. And since the Surry County area attracted a lot of Scots-Irish settlers in the 1700s, that could be right, too. Whatever the case, there’s no evidence that the dessert is baked anywhere other than this very particular area in North Carolina.

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Even though Mount Airy has heled an annual sonker festival since 1980, seven years ago, the Tourism Partnership of Surry County started the Sonker Trail to encourage year-round interest in the dessert. “We wanted to offer something that has a heritage in the area,” says Jessica Icenhour Roberts, executive director of the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority & Tourism Partnership of Surry County. “You can visit the locations within a 40-minute drive and get out and see some of the area. And I love that [the sonker makers] all do their own versions.”

Stops in Dobson, Rockford, Elkin, and Pilot Mountain are included on the trail, but if you’re short on time, you can get a good sense of the many moods of sonker in one city, Mount Airy, which has three stops with very different versions of the treat.

The blackberry-and-peach “zonker” with moonshine glaze is a hit at Miss Angels Heavenly Pies. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

At her Mount Airy shop, Angela Shur gives her sonker a twist.   photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Around the corner from Coleman’s shop — but a world away in sonker philosophy — sits Miss Angels Heavenly Pies on North Main Street. Antique signs and photos of the store’s goodies cover hot pink walls. Walk toward the sign featuring a heart with wings, and you’ll find Angela Shur, also known as Miss Angel, in her “I went bonkers eating zonker” T-shirt. Shur started out making pies when she opened the store in 2011 and later added other baked goods. Having moved from New York’s Long Island, she’d never heard of Surry County’s secret dessert until a customer came in one day and watched her preparing fruit for a cobbler.

“She shouted, ‘You’re making sonker!’ ” Shur says. “I told her, ‘No, it’s a cobbler.’ Then she started telling me about her mother and grandmother making it, how they never wasted fruit, used fruit that was too ripe — the riper the better. The woman said her family called it a no-waste cobbler. She said they grew up very poor and used everything.”

The story inspired Shur. She looked up traditional sonker recipes and began thinking about how she could better use the fruit that she and her husband grow on their farm. To give her sonker a twist, she soaked the fruit in another mountain tradition, moonshine, and named the result “zonker” because it had a little kick.

Sweetened with honey from Shur’s farm and packed with seasonal fruit, her version is straight-ahead country traditional, with a crust on top and a sugar-milk glaze. But in the summer, she offers something different: a savory sonker made with vegetables from her farm.

photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Half a block from Miss Angels Heavenly Pies is a whole different kind of sonker. Sue Heckman, from New York and Pennsylvania, owns the 6-year-old Prudence McCabe Confections. She’s also new to the dessert, having put it on her menu only a couple of years ago. She offers sonker along with her homemade chocolates, which look like gems in glass display cases. The name Prudence McCabe is a combination of her grandmother’s first name and her husband’s grandmother’s last name. Her grandmother was a baker, and both women were inspirations for Heckman.

Heckman’s sonker, baked in individual pans, has a sophisticated, delicate flavor and texture, with a crunchy crust made by grating cold butter and sprinkling sugar on top when the sonker is almost done. Her favorite flavor is pear. “I haven’t tried sweet potato yet, but people tell me they love it, so I might,” she says. “I love to play around with ideas and flavors.”

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Mark Thrower is the executive chef at Harvest Grill, the restaurant at Shelton Vineyards in Dobson. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Over in Dobson, about 15 miles southwest of downtown Mount Airy, Mark Thrower knows the right wines to pair with sonker. As the executive chef at Harvest Grill, the restaurant at Shelton Vineyards, Thrower even adds wine into his recipe for sonker, which he bakes in individual cast-iron pans and tops with vanilla frozen custard. “[Shelton’s] Sunset Blackberry and Sunset Sangria go well with the berry sonkers,” he says. “Riesling or Moscato go well with the peach, apple, and sweet potato.”

A dozen miles to the south and east, Rockford General Store puts out hot-sonker alerts on its Facebook page, and usually offers several flavors daily. As befits the store’s location in the historic town of Rockford, this sonker is made in the traditional style.

While Rockford General Store has been in business for more than a century, Coleman’s Anchored is one of the newest places, around for only five years. But each stop on the Surry Sonker Trail is part of a delicious history, especially for Coleman, for whom sonker was the standard dessert when she was growing up. “We had sonker more than cake or pie,” she says. “Cake was for special occasions.”

These days, Coleman offers sonker as a way to honor her family’s tradition and to remember her grandmother. “I was one of 17 grandchildren, and she treated each of us special,” she says. “I want to be someone that she would be proud of — a godly, kind, and loving woman, like she was.” And so, Coleman says, “I put sonker on the menu from the very beginning.”

Read more about the Yadkin Valley:
Peace in the Valley
Through the Grapevine
7 Stops On the Surry Sonker Trail

This story was published on Sep 26, 2022

Debbie Moose

Debbie Moose is a Raleigh-based food writer and author. Her latest book, from UNC Press, is Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.