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Seeking out the sonkers of Surry County

Fred Sauceman • May 15, 2019 at 4:30 PM

Sonker. As I type the word, my computer inserts a bold red underline, that glaring signal of unfamiliarity. Even some of the most highly regarded books on foods of the American South ignore sonker completely. A mention of the word just a hundred miles beyond Surry County, North Carolina, typically elicits blank stares and furrowed brows.

The venerable “Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets” does acknowledge sonker’s existence, with a six-line entry. Cobbler gets three times that much space.

Obscurity, in this case, may be a virtue. Every Cracker Barrel in America serves fruit cobbler. None of them serves sonker and likely never will. Sonker’s identity is local. The cobbler-like dessert was born out of necessity and poverty. As Sandra Johnson at Mount Airy, North Carolina’s Down Home Restaurant puts it, “Sonker is a hard times dish. It contains no eggs, which were scarce. All it takes is fruit, a little bit of sugar, and biscuit dough.” Sandra says three-quarters of a cup of sugar will sweeten a good-sized sonker.

Sonker was not only a way to get as much goodness as possible out of limited ingredients, it was also a way to conserve time. “As times modernized and women went to work in the factories and mills, meal preparation at night had to be quicker,” Sandra says.

She knows that firsthand. Her father, Jonah Boyd, worked in a furniture factory while her mother, Agnes, made sweaters for Pine State Knitwear. “My mama would keep sonker on the stove, and as the fruit boiled, she’d drop little dumplings in it, and on top she’d put a smooth layer of her dough bread. Then she’d put it in the oven to brown it up real good.”

Sandra calculates that a sonker can be made from scratch in less than 45 minutes, and that time even includes the peeling of the peaches. Or, more often, the peeling of sweet potatoes. She says sweet potato sonker is her favorite, and Surry County historian Marion Venable agrees. “Sweet potatoes are the queen of sonker,” Marion tells me.

Marion interviewed members of home demonstration clubs in the late 1970s and collected their recipes in a booklet, first printed in 1980. My copy is dated 2013, the year of the 34th Annual Sonker Festival. The event continues to be held, on the first Saturday in October at the 1799 Edwards-Franklin House in the western part of Surry County. The first five recipes in the booklet are for sweet potato sonker. Marion says most of the contributors to the recipe collection are now deceased.

Mrs. C.L. Eads of Mount Airy put a little vinegar in her sweet potato sonker. Madge Gunnell of Ararat added cinnamon and nutmeg. Mrs. Gib Wolfe of Dobson only used sweet potatoes, butter, vanilla, and sugar for her filling.

Dough-to-filling ratios and the placement of the dough itself can vary from home to home. Many sonker bakers line the bottoms and sides of their metal pans with dough. Some add a top crust. “But I think you can have too much bread,” Marion Venable says. “I put strips of crust on the bottom and sides, then add my fruit and sugar, and put strips of dough across the top, like a lattice-work pie.”

“The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets” describes sonker as “a soupy adaptation of cake-style cobbler particular to western North Carolina.”

According to the late folklorist Dr. Cratis Williams, the word “sonker” originally meant “a small grassy knoll suitable for use as a seat, then to a seat made from bundles of hay or straw, and then to a saddle made of straw. The word is identified as Scottish dialect.” Williams theorized that the irregularly shaped piece of dough used in making sonker reminded some “imaginative cook” of a grass saddle.

Just about anything from the orchard, the garden, or the larder can qualify as the centerpiece of a sonker. Apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches, rhubarb, and strawberries are common ingredients. Sandra Johnson says she has even heard of persimmon. One of the best sonkers she has tasted was made with green June apples.

Sandra Johnson’s restaurant is one of several on the Sonker Trail, created by the Surry County Tourism office. Craig Distl, public relations representative for the office, says since the trail’s website was created in January of 2015, some 60,000 people have visited.

Sonker is most always served warm, along with a dip made of milk or half-and-half, sugar, and vanilla extract. Cornstarch and eggs are occasionally used as thickeners, but most sonker dips are not that involved. Gussying would run contrary to the dessert’s simple legacy.

“It’s a poor person’s dessert,” Sandra asserts. “If you lived in Mount Airy, you grew up eating sonker. Maybe not the elite city folks, but we country folks sure did.”

Sonker ingredients and procedures may be simple, but the lineage is profound and far-reaching. Long before the advent of wheat flour, Native Americans combined cornmeal “doughs” with berries. Sonker, too, is clearly influenced by the pie-making traditions of the British Isles. And New World sweet potatoes connected African American cooks in North Carolina back to the yams of their African homeland.

Three continents converge to bring bowls of warm, milk-soaked sweet potato sonker to North Carolina’s tables. It’s a sugary symbol of southern ingenuity in Surry County.

Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”