I am willing to admit it…I am a city girl. I like convenience. However, I love the peace and quiet the country offers. Growing up in a fast, growing southern city made it difficult to hold on to the small pleasures my early years in a small town offered. The crafts, hobbies, and daily life activities I knew early on were not appreciated in the large city my family moved to in the late seventies.
Homemade Christmas ornaments, cakes baked from scratch, and running barefoot over patches of deep, cool grass in summer, were replaced with organized activities created by groups filling a gap once filled by two-parent homes. Not one of the kids I played with in the city were familar with hours spent with Mom baking cookies and cakes. No one knew the method of Wilton cake decorating, and anything homemade. Store bought was all they knew.
In my childish desire to “fit in,” I engaged in the same past-times of other kids. It wasn’t easy. Our country accented, one car, one income, do-it-yourself family was as foreign to them as their pointless need for designer jeans and and a place at the beach was to us.
That’s why when I came across a recipe for “sonker,” I was perplexed. Surry County Sonker, to be precise, was a recipe so regional and unique to the area of my anscestors, no one outside of Surry County, North Carolina had even heard of this special dessert.
“Mom? Ever heard of sonker?” I asked recently.
My mother perked up. “Oh yes, my mother used to make sonker,” she said cherrily. “It was good. She usually made it with whatever fruit we had leftover. Seems to me she used self-rising flour, sugar, and…”
No one knows with any certainty how sonker came about, or the origins of the name sonker. The most popular explanation is that it might be from a colloquiaism of sunk, as in the fruit sunk down at the bottom of the pan as the flour rose to the top, thus the fruit “sonked down.” As my mother explained to me, it was just a sort of pie, but not quite. It was a cobbler, but not exactly like a cobbler. It wasn’t cobbler. It wasn’t pie, it was just…sonker.
That is the legendary Sonker.
However it came to be, sonker was something put together by housewives and consisted of the fruits of summer, or autumn, or winter, just whatever was available at the time. My mother recalled how her mother whipped up a sonker for the fieldhands that planted and picked tobacco in the area. Her mother learned from her mother, and her mother from her mother, and so on. And the way your mother made sonker was the correct way to make sonker. It depended on what was available and what the busy women had time to work with in addition to their other chores.
My mother paused, her eyes gazed upward as the wheels of her memory spinned. “I think she used self-rising flour. I remember it had lots of juice and we always ate it with cream.”
It wasn’t long before we were both in the kitchen, gathering up ingredients as my mother talked her way through the memories of her mother’s recipe. I grabbed the sugar and the bag of peaches we had bought earlier in the week. Soon the stovetop was red hot and adding to the misery of a humid June day, as I scooped up the blueberries from their corner in the back of the refridgerator.
Steam billowed under the exhaust fan as we watched the fruit and sugar bubble and pop with thick juices. Mom stirred the fruit while I mixed the flour and milk together for the topping.
The result of our efforts was a deep dish filled with juicy fruit and the liquid filling every edge of the pan. The doughy top, baked brown and broken through by the lucious fruit underneath. It didn’t last long. We ate up our work with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“We never had money for ice cream,” my mother recalled. “Ice cream was a special treat for when we went into town on weekends. But we usually always had cream from the cow.”
Sonker was often served with a milk dip, as it was called. A sweet, thick liquid consisting of sugar, water, a little cornstarch for thickening, and a dab of vanilla.
Our afternoon making sonker lead me to ask my dad if he remembered sonker.
“Sonker pie!” He let out. “Oh yeah, my mother made sonker pie.”
Sonker pie, as he called it, was again made in a similar way as my mother’s mother, with self-rising flour, whatever fruit she could gather together, and lots of sugar. Always made for the folks out in the fields planting or harvesting a crop. For my anscestors, that meant corn, wheat, and of course, tobacco.
Today sonker seldom resembles the dessert my parents remember so fondly. Sonker on the internet and You Tube is dolled up with puff pastry or strips of rolled pastry dough with crimped edges, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is just not a true sonker. It isn’t true to our heritage, but so many people today, especially in America, want to replicate everything to fit everyone’s palate that our past is lost and forgotten.
Many immigrants have changed their native dishes to appeal to the masses and for good reason. They, like me so many years ago, wanted to fit in. And in doing so, they had to change what seemed odd to everyone else in order to survive, but we still need to hold on to what made us who we are. Homogenization is fine for milk, but not people.
I do feel grateful to live in a country with so many choices. American cuisine is a collection of everyone’s past from around the world. I think I would get bored eating the same foods everyday of the week. So if you would like to try something different, I hope you will give sonker a try. It is a part of my past I would like to share with everyone.
Recipe for Old-Fashioned Surry County Sonker and Milk Dip
1 stick of butter (a half cup)
Approximately 4 cups of fruit of your choice (whatever is available)
1 tsp. of vanilla
1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1 cup of self-rising four (or leftover rolled out pastry dough, this is for placing on to of the fruit)
1 cup of whole milk
a pinch of salt
(1) Preheat your oven to 350*
(2) Melt the butter in a rectangle sized baking pan; one that has deep sides. Any deep edged pan or dish will do.
(3) In a heavy saucepan, add the fruit and 1 cup of sugar. Warm the fruit over medium heat until the fruit and sugar are hot and bubbly. Keep stirring or the fruit wil stick to the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat.
(4) In a seperate bowl, mix together the rest of the sugar along with the cup of flour, milk, and vanilla.
(5) Pour the fruit into the prepared baking dish, then pour the batter over the top. Some people add the batter first, either way is fine. My mother’s mother added the fruit first.
(6) Bake in oven for at least 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
(7) Serve with milk dip, cream, or vanilla ice cream while sonker is hot.
For the Milk Dip, mix together 1 cup of milk, 1/4 cup sugar, and vanilla to taste over medium heat in a small pot. Add a bit of cornstarch for thickening. Stir until sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Pour over sonker and serve.