An old technique is making its way into contemporary kitchens. It’s called sonker and the purpose of this centuries-old dish was to preserve leftover harvests. Savvy southern cooks and chefs are using this biscuit — or dumpling, depending on your perspective — concoction as a cupboard-clearing, cost-saving, creative solution, including it on specials and by request from regular diners.
Tucked away in the mist and mystery of Northwestern North Carolina, we can thank settlers of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range for sonker (although the origins are supposedly derived from a Scottish term that means ‘a little of this or that’). The story of how it came to be varies wildly from home cooks to historians. Little written history exists about the evolution of sonker, which is not to be confused with its doughy cousins, cobbler, and pie. Instead, great-grandmothers more commonly passed down the recipes to younger family members verbally. During hard times, sonker came in especially handy, with cooks making quick work of ingredients before they could spoil. Back then, with many hungry mouths to feed amid the backbreaking job of farming, nary a crumb went to waste. It’s said that first lady Martha Washington included a recipe for sonker in her cookbook.
While the dish with the funny name has always been a mainstay of local lore, in these modern times, when hot trends from nose-to-tail butchery to spinning beet greens as the leafy green du jour, reducing waste, and lowering food costs is neverending, the tradition of sonker is finding new life among a younger generation of chefs. The latest progression in crafting sonker involves using what’s on hand and honoring local cuisine. In coastal regions, this might include a seafood sonker, while in the flyover states, chefs could hone in on a farm-fresh vegetable sonker.
In the heart of the Yadkin Valley Vinicultural Region, chefs at Dobson-based Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards have figured out how to combine vintages from their winery with local fruit to create new versions of old-time sonker to use what’s in the cabinet and honor the locals who have helped preserve the original recipes. “It always makes me a little uncomfortable to have to throw something away,” said chef Paul S. Lange. “Making a sonker is a great way to use everything in your kitchen, especially being out in the country, where we want every dollar to find its way onto the table to create the best experience for our guests.”
Harvest Grill pastry chef Frances Draughn knows a little something about Southern cooking. Making the restaurant’s latest sonker dishes took her back to her childhood sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen, playing in the corn crib and being scared to go in the smokehouse. Chefs Lange and Draughn created two variations, the first a departure from classic berry in a poached pear, wine-soaked sonker using their Shelton Vineyards Port. They added golden raisins, plumped up in the brown sugar and spices gravy. Next, they prepared a blackberry sonker in a large cast iron pan, letting the heady fruit stew into a thick syrup to keep the dough from becoming soggy.
Lange and Draughn recently invited historian Marion Venable and sonker expert Emma Jean Tucker to sample the sonkers they made. The ladies say they still smile thinking of rushing home to the scent of apple or strawberry sonker wafting from the family kitchen decades ago. “We lived on a farm and had our own garden and fruit trees, so my mamma put whatever kind fruit we harvested at the time in her sonker, which was black raspberry or even huckleberry sonker, sweetened with sorghum, cane molasses or sugar,” said Tucker.
In a nod to what contemporary chefs might consider as a garnish, Marion Venable’s grandmother made sonker with leftover dough to bake on its own for after school snacks. Along with the sonker itself, their elder relatives would make a dip of sorts out of cream, sugar, molasses, and vanilla extract to pour over it. “We often used sweet potatoes, aplenty from root cellars where they remained accessible all year long and the dip kept it from drying out,” said Venable, who helps organize the Surry County Historical Society sonker festival every October in Mount Airy — otherwise known as Mayberry because it is Andy Griffith’s hometown. Unofficially, sweet potato remains the most popular version of sonker in Surry County.
Tucker and Venable welcome chefs to contact them for copies of the Surry County Historical Society’s 28-page sonker cookbook, hoping the nearly 40-year-old publication will inspire new recipes and keep the cuisine alive. It’s already happening with a spate of seed-to-fork gastronomes who relish pushing sonker’s sweet boundaries.
Classic sonker recipes chronicled in Surry County Historical Society cookbook often include personal stories of what the dish meant to the cooks who made it and how they preferred it prepared. Bettie Hardy of the Siloam Extension Club created her ‘Old Timey Sonker’ recipe, in which she tells of using a “good sized sonker pan” and handfuls of flour rather – she developed it before she ever had measuring cups. Lena Mae Inman’s Lazy Day Sonker has just five ingredients but it would feed a family of six. Heath Hendren Clark credits the Depression for the invention of his ‘Mother’s Berry Sonker’ recipe featuring leftover biscuits and berries. Contemporary chefs will better recognize the main ingredients in ‘Pie Plant Sonker’ as rhubarb. And Wavy Mabry shares the story of racing home after school for a helping of ‘Spread Apple Pie’ dripping with melted butter or sourwood honey.
Sonker master Loretta Flack elevates the humble sonker to gourmet heights at her utterly charming Roxxi & Lulu’s in historic Elkin. Hers is a dumpling-style sonker (pictured above), which is slightly different from the biscuit-based version. “The dumplings are not overly sweet, so depending on how sweet the fruit is on its own, I usually add about two cups of sugar to the water and fruit and boil for around eight minutes,” said Flack, who cautions new sonker chefs not to stir dumplings after dropping them in the water. “Then I set them aside for about ten minutes to completely steam them – the result being a really soft dumpling that’s dry on the inside, just like the inside of a biscuit – but when the butter in those dumplings bursts, they just melt in your mouth.”
Flack’s grandmother made sonker when it was nothing more than dumplings in a bowl, topped with ice cream or homemade French cream. For herself, however, she follows in the tradition of using whatever she finds in the kitchen. “If you think of it like a goulash and less like a dessert, just add protein to make your sonker a unique one-pot meal,” she said. “One of my recent favorite combinations is sharp cheddar, sausage, sweet onions, olive oil, and apples, which was like a savory apple dumpling.”
Flack is accustomed to diners calling ahead to special-order her sonker. Recently, she baked and sold out of all 30 servings of her legendary strawberry sonker in a single day. She advises chefs in large-scale restaurants to get creative since the spirit of sonker is about using what you have on-hand. “I have made sonker with everything you can possibly imagine, from pineapple, mango and nuts; bourbon and sweet potato with a brûléed top; and pureed pumpkin and cream cheese,” she said. “But my favorite was when my mother and father had fig trees and I had gallons of them, so they became fig, Gouda, and bacon sonkers.” To prepare that epicurean darling, Flack roasts the fresh figs and transfers them to a pot where she adds sugar and a little water to bring to a boil. She uses freshly shredded Gouda cheese for easy melting and bacon to get the savory-sweet mix she wants.
Other regional sonker variations include sonker Benedicts (pictured above) made with local chorizo, farm-fresh goat cheese, and dip made from a reduction of Mayberry Spirits whiskey and native honey. Another features pork belly, crushed walnuts, and apple butter from local farmer Mayberry Meats and More, topped with salted maple buttercream. In Pilot Mountain, featured as Mount Pilot on the Andy Griffith show, pickle impresario Niki Farrington of Niki’s Pickles makes her sonker with pickle juice, North Carolina sweet potatoes, ramps, and regional cheddar pastry.
Another chef who joined the Surry Sonker Trail is Skull Camp Smokehouse chef Corey Moore, who begins by mixing fruit with water, cornstarch, and sugar and baking the mixture for 30 minutes to allow the fruit to release its juices. He then makes a sweet batter, pours it on top of the fruit, slides it back in the oven, and bakes until golden brown (pictured below).
“Sonker is one of those dishes where culture and culinary meet in a very specific way,” said Moore, who plans to seasonally rotate the fruit in its sonker to include cherries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and sweet potatoes. The restaurant opened in a former general store so the addition of sonker fits the historic locale.
In North Carolina’s remote enclaves a breath from the Blue Ridge Parkway, fruit trees thrive in the Round Peak and Lowgap regions, leading to savory and sweet versions of apple, grape and blueberry sonkers. The sonker trail across the Yadkin Valley includes stops at eight eateries, such as the aforementioned Roxxi & Lulu’s and the historic Rockford General Store, which dates back to the 1700s. A Rockford woman who made sonker for 80 years taught it to the new owners, who now regularly sell out of their peach and sweet potato sonkers (pictured below).
For chefs who like infusing a bit of history into their specials and on the menu, Shelton Vineyards chef Lange sees dishes like sonker as a smart path to connect diners with food that helps tells his story as a chef. “Rather than breaking in something new, I like to look backward, wondering what I can do to update a classic and make it mine,” says Lange, a Culinary Institute of America graduate celebrating more than a decade at the helm of Harvest Grill.
And pastry chef Draughn, who bakes huge pans of cornbread for Harvest Grill’s croutons, crab cakes, and Scotch eggs, relishes finding clever ways to use such time-honored traditions as a platform for connecting with diners, especially when it involves a trip down memory lane. “How fun it was to create these new sonker recipes with what we had in the kitchen, and then share it with Ms. Tucker and Ms. Venable,” said Draughn. “For the most part, we are all strangers, but to get to sit down together and talk about the history of this dish gave us that common thread.”
Sonker recipes used with permission from the Surry County Historical Society. Photo credits: Kelly Merritt; Sara Brennan (Roxxi & Lulu’s).