North Carolina gains meatier culinary trail
Ground steak tour succeeds on several levels
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The Surry Sonker Trail—which weaves through the hilly northwest corner of the North Carolina Piedmont from bars to bakeries serving sonker, a Surry County cousin to cobbler—has a website, historical marker, and associated festival. Until 2018, it even had an unofficial enforcer.
“We’d go on day trips, and if we were close to such-and-such, we’d go to try their sonker,” said Paul Carter of Rockford General Store in Dobson, the first business to join the tourism initiative unveiled by Surry County in 2015. Carter’s late wife, Carolyn, “would go off on them if they didn’t have it.”
“You’ve got to have it!” she chastised unprepared sonker purveyors registered with the trail. “You’ve got to have it every day! This thing isn’t going to work unless you have it, because it takes a link out of the chain.”
When I traveled the Sonker Trail in July, all but one of the seven listed stops still in business had sonker available. In some cases, though, it might have been better if they hadn’t.
Sonker, historically specific to two North Carolina counties, is supposed to be a deep-dish pie combining fresh fruit with free-form pastry or batter, applied with the nonchalance of a dry martini drinker pouring vermouth. (By contrast, a cobbler maker tends to care more about crust than bubbling fruit juice.) While there aren’t any agreed-upon rules for sonker, likely named for its forever-sinking topping, I encountered sticky canned fillings and carelessly defrosted crusts along the trail.
But at the same time, I was eating my way through Surry County’s latest dish-themed tour. The Surry Ground Steak Trail debuted in June, showcasing a floury meat sandwich hailed a century ago for not putting too much strain on millworkers’ thin wallets or toothless gums. Ground steak, which amounts to a stretched-out hamburger, has remained a hyperlocal favorite since the Depression, although it’s as idiosyncratic as sonker: The more ground steak I ate, the less I felt I knew about it, since every restaurant has its own ideas about proper shape, size, texture, and seasoning.
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