Surry County’s annual Sonker Festival will celebrate its 40th year this Saturday, Oct. 5, in Mount Airy.
The Surry County Historical Society sponsors this festival honoring Surry’s own sonker, a fruit dessert most often likened to a deep dish pie or cobbler.
“It comes about by blending fruit and unshaped dough, often sweetened with sugar or sorghum cane molasses,” the society says on the website for its Sonker Trail.
“It can be accompanied by a dip (glaze) made of cream, sugar or molasses, and a few drops of vanilla extract. This is usually poured over the sonker in the dish.”
Sonkers can be made with just about any fruit used for pie or cobbler.
“And sweet potato is real popular this time of year,” said Marshella Correa, who makes sonkers at Rockford General Store in Dobson, which is on the Sonker Trail.
Annette Ayers, the president of the Surry County Historical Society, said that sonkers are known for being “really juicy.”
“They’re juicy because there’s a lot of fruit in it,” she said.
Correa agreed. She uses a deep-dish baking pan to create a high proportion of fruit to crust.
“The crust is there to absorb the fruit juice,” said Pam Foy, whose family owns Rockford General Store.
The key is “more fruit than crust,” said Samantha Coleman, a Surry native who owns Anchored Sweet Treats & Savory Eats, another shop on the Sonker Trail.
The historical society said that the sonker festival attracts 500 to 700 people each year. The festival will have a variety of sonkers. Sweet potato is always a big seller, Ayers said, but the festival typically offers peach, strawberry, blackberry and blueberry, too. The society also sells a sonker recipe book.
Lorene Moore, a Surry native and the owner of Lorene's Bakery and Catering in Dobson, said she was making about 180 servings of sweet-potato sonker for the festival. Ayers declined to comment when asked the source of the other sonkers that will be sold at the festival. In addition to sonkers, the festival will haves live old-time music, flatfoot dancing, quilting demonstrations and a Civil War exhibit. “We always have a tremendous turnout,” Ayers said. “People bring lawn chairs and stay a while.”
In a 1980 booklet of sonker recipes by the historical society, the word "sonker" is said to have come from a Scottish word for a grassy knoll, and, later, a straw saddle. So the story goes that some cook likened the irregular shape of dough in a sonker to a grass saddle, and that's how the sonker got its name.
Those who can’t make it to the festival can sample sonkers any time of the year at one of five places on the Sonker Trail: two in Elkin, two in Mount Airy and one in Dobson.
Coleman, 31, studied pastry at Wilkes County Community College and at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Before opening Anchored in downtown Mount Airy, she was a pastry chef at Roaring Gap Country Club for 10 years.
“I change my flavors weekly, sometimes a couple times a week. I try to use whatever local fruit is in season,” she said.
The other week she had spiced apple and sweet-potato sonkers.
She said she makes fairly traditional sonkers. “I make it the way my grandmother and mother made it,” she said.
She takes sweetened fruit — cooked for such types as apple, raw for such types as berries — and thickens it with cornstarch. After she pours the filling in a baking dish, she makes a batter with self-rising flour, sugar and buttermilk — usually with a pinch of salt and bit of vanilla extract — then pours that on top of the filling before baking. She’ll serve the sonker plain or with whipped cream for $2.50.
Other flavors she has made include strawberry and mixed fruit. She sometimes likes to play around with tradition a little bit. She might add some cardamom to her strawberry sonker, or some brandy to her apple sonker. She also has experimented with a muscadine-grape sonker.
Around the corner from Anchored in Mount Airy, Angela Shur does her own nontraditional take on sonkers at Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies.
Shur, a 60-year-old native New Yorker, moved to North Carolina about 10 years ago after retiring as a schoolteacher. She and her husband bought a farm in Surry and planted apple trees and other fruit trees and bushes. What started as a hobby making a few pies here and there to use the farm’s fruit soon escalated into a full-time job. She opened Miss Angel’s in 2012, and later expanded into a larger space next door on Main Street.
“I don’t make a traditional sonker. I’m not Southern, and I’m different. So I wanted to do it my own way,” Shur said.
In fact, to note the difference, she calls hers a “zonker” or “zonka.”
She likes to use fruit from her own farm and soak it in homemade cider a few days to soften it to the right texture. She often adds honey instead of sugar to sweeten the fruit. She’ll then cook the fruit before topping it with a rolled pie crust dough made with cream cheese and honey.
The “zonk” in her zonker comes from her optional moonshine glaze (sold to adults only).
“The alcohol makes it different,” she said of her glaze. “I buy moonshine (from Mayberry Spirits) by the gallon.”
Zonkers cost $3.50 plain or $4.50 with moonshine glaze. Customers also can pay a little extra to get some ice cream from Shur’s Hillbilly ice-cream shop next door.
Over in Dobson, traditional sonkers are baked at the Rockford General Store. Pam Foy’s family became the fifth owners of the 1890 general store in 2007, and they added a kitchen in 2008.
Foy runs the business with her husband, Robert Foy, and brothers Paul Carter and Jim Carter. Paul’s late wife, Carolyn Carter, made the sonkers until her death from cancer last year, and since then Correa and Sarah Doub have taken over the baking, turning out strawberry, mixed berry, cherry, sweet-potato and more kinds of sonkers from a recipe the family got from an 85-year-old local cook.
Correa said she makes pie crust with shortening for the fat and milk for the liquid. She rolls the crust and makes a collar around the edge of a deep dish pan. Then she adds the sweetened fruit, tops it with the rolled crust and folds over the collar.
She thickens her fruit with a little flour, but not much. “I want that juice,” Correa said.
The deep-dish pan — at least 3 inches deep — limits the amount of crust to keep the focus on the fruit.
Rockford General Store sells an individual serving for $3 plain or $5 with ice cream. It also will sell whole sonkers by advance order, for $30 for a sonker that feeds 10 to 12 people.
Over in Elkin, Christina Harrold, the kitchen manager at Skull Camp Brewery & Smokehouse, makes a different kind of sonker every week. She particularly likes combinations of fruit, such as blueberry and peach, blackberry and peach or a mixture of raspberry, strawberry and blackberry.
Like Shur, Harrold likes to soak her fruit to ensure the right texture. “And I put honey in all my sonkers,” she said.
For the topping she makes a pie crust “with tons of butter” and sprinkles turbinado sugar on top. But once it's baked, Harrold's sonker is still about 90% fruit. For $5.95, it comes with French vanilla ice cream, though sometimes Harrold will make a milk dip.
Also in Elkin, Southern on Main has developed a slightly different take on sonkers to allow chef-owner Marla Stern to serve hot, freshly baked sonkers to order. The restaurant usually has apple and blueberry sonkers on hand every day.
Stern and her daughter, Alexis Usko, will make the fruit filling and her topping ahead of time but keep them separate. “We will flatten out buttermilk biscuit dough and bake the lids separately, then heat up the filling to order and put it together,” Stern said.
The result is a $3.99 bowl containing an ocean of hot fruit with an oval island of crunchy freshly baked biscuit in the middle, topped with vanilla ice cream. It's a study in contrasts: soft and crunchy, hot and cold.
Stern is the only baker on the Sonker Trail using a biscuit dough, instead of pie dough or a batter.
But that’s what makes sonkers interesting. Aside from offering lots of sweet and juicy fruit — or sweet potato or pumpkin — they all are a little bit different, which is why the definition is imprecise.
“It’s hard to put an exact label on it,” Coleman said. “It’s not cut and dried.”
Foy put it another way. “For every grandmother in Surry County,” she said, “there’s a different way of making sonker.”