What Is a Sonker and How Did It Get That Unusual Name?

A regional favorite like no other.

Triple Berry Sonker
Photo: Photographer: Victor Protasio Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer Prop Stylist: Mary Clayton Carl Jones

As a young girl growing up in Surry County, North Carolina, Emma Jean Tucker clearly recalls her mother rolling pastry each day for that night's dessert, a hot, not-quite-soupy, fruit-filled delight that her mother called cobbler but that she now knows as sonker.

"For some reason, she only called it sonker if it was made with sweet potatoes," she explains. "I never thought to ask why."

Regardless of the name, the method didn't vary: seasonal fruit, sugar, butter and water, would go into a saucepan to heat just until the sugar melted (some sugared berries went in without heating); meanwhile, an oversized sheet of pastry dough would be draped into a rectangular casserole. Once the fruit mixture had been piled into the pan, the long edges of the dough would be pulled up, galette-style, to surround the filling in a crusty wreath.

"Some families served their sonker with dip," says Tucker, referring to the warm, creamy vanilla-scented sauce that traditionally accompanies sonker. "I have a recipe for it, but we preferred ice cream."

While nearly every family in Surry and Yadkin counties in North Carolina has a generations-old recipe for sonker, the dessert isn't widely known outside of this tiny region. Similar desserts do abound—cobblers, slumps, grunts, and pandowdies are just a few of the sonker's fruit-and-dough cousins—but none have the overflowing juiciness that makes a sonker a sonker.

Another characteristic of a traditional sonker is the top crust, which, originally, was a large piece of dough laid casually atop the fruit without being crimped or decorated.

"Throwing a pie crust together was second nature to these cooks, so they'd fill it with whatever fruit was in season, and be done with it," says Marion Venable of the Surry County Historical Society. "They didn't have time to crimp the edges—the needed to move on to their next task."

That unanchored crust is what probably gave sonker its name, either for its habit of sinking into the fruit—sinker morphed into sonker—or for its resemblance to a seat or saddle, which the region's Scottish settlers called a sonker.

Today, as fewer and fewer bakers can just whip up a pie crust, sonker-loving cooks are getting creative, topping their creations with everything from cobbler batter to a stiffer dough that can be dolloped atop the fruit.

"My mother and sister used dough like you'd use for biscuits," says Geneva Mabe, who has spent all of her nine decades in the area. "These days, I've taken to cheating a bit and use batter with milk, sugar, and flour."

Marshella Correa still takes the time to roll out pie dough each day at Rockford General Store, but has dispensed with the top crust altogether. "I scoop it out and flip it over for serving, so the crust ends up on top," she explains.

Sue Heckman, who makes cobbler-style sonker at Prudence McCabe Confections in Mount Airy, came up with a solution for those who prefer ice cream to dip over their sonker but don't want to run up against tradition. "We tell them to think of it as frozen dip," she laughs. "It works every time."

Explore the Sonker Trail

The eight-stop Surry Sonker Trail winds through the towns of Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain, and Dobson and provides a chance to taste—and take home—a number of sonker variations. For more information, visit sonkertrail.org.

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