“We’re looking for what?” my daughter asks with a look somewhere between confusion and amusement as our car meanders through the foothills of Surry County, in North Carolina along the Virginia line. “Sonker,” I reply soberly, without cracking a smile, like everyone knows what sonker is. She doesn’t seem convinced, but she’s a good sport and humors me. We continue along on our sweet scavenger hunt, heading to eight eateries within a forty-mile radius—with stops in Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain, Dobson, Elkin, and the village of Rockford—on our quest for the unicorn of desserts, said to be only made here.
I’m not about to admit that until recently, I had never heard of a sonker—a confection similar to a potpie with fruit filling, a close cousin to a cobbler, but juicier, more soupy. But once I stumbled upon the map of the Surry Sonker Trail, it sounded like an adventure too tempting to pass up. In 2015, the Tourism Partnership of Surry County created the trail to highlight Surry County’s unique dessert and to bring visitors to the Yadkin Valley region, but locals have been celebrating the treat with the annual Sonker Festival since 1980.
Theories vary as to where the term sonker came from—perhaps from Scotch-Irish settlers, or a derivation of the word sunk—as do the recipes for it, many of them handed down through individual families, each adding their own spin. Some recipes feature a dumpling-like dough crust, similar to a deep-dish pie, while others have a bread-crumb topping. Filling flavors vary by season—apple, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, peach, and sweet potato are commonly used, though fillings are by no means limited to those. Even wine-infused sonker can be found at the Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards. Regardless of its origin, one thing is certain: Sonker is as much a part of Surry County history as Andy Griffith, and just as beloved.
We stop first at the historic Rockford General Store, the kind of place that sells candy by the ounce and where locals gather to swap stories. Sonker can be ordered by the bowl, or the entire pan, and customers are encouraged to call ahead to have their favorite available. A woman named Sidney, the sonker maker there, invited us to watch as she prepared a blueberry sonker for baking, and even shared her recipe. “We’re carrying on the tradition,” says Paul Carter, the store owner. “It’s good and doesn’t need messing with.”
We then head north into Mount Airy, the basis for the fictional town of Mayberry and the epicenter of the Sonker Trail. Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies (located next door to the Snappy Lunch, the only real business Andy ever mentioned on The Andy Griffith Show) is too convenient to pass up. Angela “Miss Angel” Shur’s sonker—or “zonker,” as the former New Yorker calls it—indeed tastes heavenly, and is one of the most natural recipes on the trail, made of fruit and berries grown on her sixty-five-acre farm and orchard, and with honey in place of sugar. But what really sets her zonker apart is the moonshine glaze she uses upon request, with proper ID, for what she calls “dangerous style.” “When I see them come in with the brochure, I know what they want,” she tells me with a grin as she spritzes moonshine on a zonker for a customer from out of state. “I’ll give her a little extra.”
We pop into Anchored bakery and sample its cobbler-like Surry County Sonker, and into Prudence McCabe Confections, for a personal-sized sonker, too—both lie not nearly a long enough walk away to work off the calories, but at this point, who’s counting? Our impending sugar comas, though, stop us from hitting the other stops on the Sonker Trail this time. But we’re already planning our next jaunt—to the Tilted Ladder in Pilot Mountain, and to Elkin’s Southern on Main and Skull Camp—for another day. And in the meantime, we will make our own with this recipe, shared by Rockford General Store. Measurements are approximate, and bakers are encouraged to tweak the recipe to their own taste. As Paul Carter says, “There is no right or wrong way to make sonker.”