The elusive sonker

Everyone thinks that the official food of North Carolina should be barbecue, but I disagree. Our state’s most original food is the sonker.

Never heard of it? Neither had the New York Times, where the origin and definition of sonker baffled writer Kim Severson in this article.

Sonker is not a slump, grunt or any of those other unattractively named fruit-based desserts. Nor is it a fussy, biscuit-topped cobbler. Pie? Absolutely not. And it would never carry so common a name as Betty.

Sonker is unique to Surry County, N.C., in the foothills, and those who were raised there. Over time, they have acquired cobbler- or pie-like qualities, but true sonker is different. My expert source on sonker is “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery” By Beth Tartan, the late longtime food writer in Winston-Salem, N.C. (my hometown). The book, which was first published in 1955, contains historical information and recipes primarily from the foothills area and the Moravian community of Winston-Salem. A new edition was published in 1992 by University of North Carolina Press.

Beth Tartan (the pen name of Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks) is pretty clear on sonker. Although no one knows its exact origins, she writes, “Like other items made with dough, chances are a thrifty cook simply put together biscuit or other dough and fruit or sweet potatoes to make a dessert.”

Yes, sweet potatoes. When I interviewed the organizers of Mt. Airy’s annual sonker festival a couple of years ago, they said that sweet potato is the traditional sonker flavor. It’s served with a topping of sugar and milk typically called a “dip,” for some reason. My thought about the sweet potatoes is that, in the days before refrigeration, fruit was perishable. Sweet potatoes would keep even through the winter, and were available to be turned into a dessert.

Tartan’s book adds that sonkers are traditionally large, meant to feed a crowd of farm hands. They are baked in deep pans, and chock-full of filling with a lesser amount of dough.

Try a traditional sonker with this recipe from Tartan’s book. It’s from someone referred to as the “Julia Child of sonker.”

Maxine Dockery’s Sweet Potato Sonker

6 to 8 sweet potatoes

3 to 4 cups sugar

3 to 4 cups self-rising flour

1/2 pound (1 cup) butter

Pastry to cover top of pan

Topping

Use a baking pan 11 by 13 inches and 3 or more inches deep. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of sliced sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with sugar and flour and dot with butter. Continue making layers until the pan is filled. top with a layer of pastry. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 40  minutes or until the pastry is done.

Topping: Stir 1/2 cup or more of granulated sugar into 1 to 2 cups sweet milk. Heat, stirring. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour the hot topping over the hot sonker. Serve warm.


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