This article first appeared in The Food Section, which we have partnered with to look at the stories behind what we eat.
The Surry Sonker Trail, which weaves through the hilly northwest corner of the North Carolina Piedmont from bars to bakeries, has a website, historical marker, and associated festival. Until 2018, the cluster of dessert destinations also had an unofficial enforcer.
“We’d go on day trips, and if we were close to such-and-such, we’d go to try their sonker,” said Paul Carter of Rockford General Store in Dobson, the first business to join the tourism initiative unveiled by Surry County in 2015. Carter’s late wife, Carolyn, “would go off on them if they didn’t have it.”
“You’ve got to have it!” she chastised unprepared sonker purveyors registered with the trail. “You’ve got to have it every day! This thing isn’t going to work unless you have it, because it takes a link out of the chain.”
When I traveled the Sonker Trail in July, all but one of the seven listed stops still in business had sonker available. In some cases, though, it might have been better if they hadn’t. Sonker, historically specific to two North Carolina counties, is supposed to be a deep-dish pie combining fresh fruit with free-form pastry or batter. While there aren’t any agreed-upon sonker rules, I encountered sticky canned fillings and carelessly defrosted crusts along the trail.
But at the same time, I was eating my way through Surry County’s latest dish-themed tour. The Surry Ground Steak Trail debuted in June, showcasing a floury meat sandwich hailed a century ago for not putting too much strain on millworkers’ thin wallets or toothless gums. Ground steak has remained a hyperlocal favorite since the Depression, although it’s as idiosyncratic as sonker: The more ground steak I ate, the less I felt I knew about it, since every restaurant has its own ideas about proper shape, size, texture, and seasoning.
Unlike sonker, though, ground steak isn’t just for show. It is such an essential part of everyday lives—as opposed to a curiosity to trot out for tourists—that at one of the 11 participating places, the door decal designating the restaurant as a trail stop was posted facing inward, so only existing customers could see it.
Even if I didn’t emerge as a ground steak expert, the experience left me with a better sense of Surry County. And it helped me realize that culinary trails work best when they connect restaurants where regular people eat real food, instead of business ventures willing to go along with a marketable story.
Bopping between restaurants that specialize in a locally significant dish has been an American pastime since the advent of car culture. “We see the landscape as a network of culinary trails,” food writers Michael and Jane Stern wrote in 1984. “The fire-eating chili trail from Texas to New Mexico; the fried chicken belt from Indianapolis to Kansas City; the salty shore dinner halls that rim the coast of Rhode Island.”
But the organized culinary trail, usually sponsored by a government body or trade association, was a millennial innovation. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau earned national attention for a quintet of trails modeled after similar programs in Europe and Canada. Its Sweet n’ Salty Trail, leading from chocolate factories to pretzel production facilities, inspired tourism authorities in rural areas across the country.
It’s notoriously difficult to measure the success of these trails in financial terms. For one thing, tourism bureaus don’t have a reliable way of measuring how many people plot eating routes according to printed or online maps: Before Experience Columbia SC relaunched its then three-year-old Pimento Cheese Trail in 2022 with a digitized passport and prizes, its only indicator of visitor interest was the 4,000 guide booklets it had given away.
Surry County Tourism has distributed about six times as many Sonker Trail brochures, but spokesperson Craig Distl declined to speculate how much money the trail has generated for the public or private sector. “Since the trail consists of individually owned businesses, it is not possible to give you economic impact as those places don’t disclose sales,” he said.
(At Rockford General, Carter said, “I don’t know it’s bringing them in by the busload,” but he’s committed to keeping sonker on the menu because of its local history. His big seller is a baloney sandwich.)
Additionally, it’s unclear how much the county has invested in the trail’s creation and promotion, since officials have asked for more time to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Food Section. “We haven’t specifically tallied Sonker Trail expenditures,” Distl said, explaining his team is apt to talk up Surry County wine and hiking whenever they pitch sonker on press trips or in printed materials.
Travel writers are listening, it seems. The Sonker Trail has been featured in Southern Living, Garden & Gun, The Local Palate, Our State, and Food & Wine, among other magazines. While Distl can’t cite exact figures, he attributes Surry County’s “steady growth in occupancy tax revenue” in part to pastry.
In fact, the trail is so well regarded in Surry County that when Travis Frye was hired in 2022 as joint tourism coordinator by Surry County and the Town of Dobson, one of the top items on his to-do list was developing a savory counterpart to the sonker path.
“My mind went to ground steak,” said Frye, who takes his sandwiches all-the-way (and on Texas toast if given a bread choice, although he won’t snub a soft bun.)
In Surry County, which is the only place where ground steak is served, “all-the-way” means with slaw and tomatoes, preferably homegrown. Some customers think the whole shebang includes mayonnaise, but Frye doesn’t believe the condiment’s necessary if the slaw is made correctly.
According to Frye, there is a mustard-and-onion contingent, but I never met any of its members.
Regardless of how ground steak is dressed, Frye said, “People swear by it. They think it’s just wonderful. Although it’s similar to a sloppy Joe, which is spicier, ground steak is just simplistic, with salt, pepper, and flour.”
Of course, there are differences. The mild ground steak at Speedy Chef in Elkin is smooth as pate, while the ground steak at Martha Sue’s in Mount Airy is closer in character to a broken-up burger. At All Sauced Up BBQ in Pilot Mountain, the ground steak is shot through with sweetness and secondhand smoke, while Freddy Hyatt at Mount Airy’s iconic Dairy Center insists the flavor of his ground steak comes from being made in the same handed-down pot for three decades.
Ground steak wasn’t on the menu at Rockford General. But as a big booster of Surry County tourism efforts, Carter rang up Frye to ask how he could participate. A native of Winston-Salem, Carter didn’t have a clue how to make the sandwich. He’d first sampled it at Surry County’s annual Autumn Leaves Festival, where locals line up dozens deep for the Flat Rock Ruritan Club’s renowned take on the dish.
“I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan,” Carter said. “I was like, ‘Throw some seasoning in there!’”
Frye directed Carter to Gina Erickson at Cousin Gary’s Family Restaurant in Pilot Mountain, where the $3.69 sandwich is so popular that a crockpot holding the mixture is flipped on along with the restaurant’s wiry red neon “Open” sign.
Erickson’s ground steak recipe was handed down from her grandmother. Alpha Collins often simmered chuck and all-purpose flour for her 19 children and didn’t always have hamburger buns on hand for serving. Even now, a few of Erickson’s customers “like a big old spoonful of ground steak so they can mix it with their taters and beans.”
When Carter showed up for lunch, Erickson said, “I gave him some pointers on how to make it good, but I didn’t want to give him everything I got.” Still, Carter left confident that he could apply what he’d learned to a bigger patty, nestle it in a homemade potato bun, and charge about 10 bucks for it. As he drove away, he also resolved to talk to Erickson about joining the Sonker Trail.
Like almost every other restaurant on the Ground Steak Trail, Cousin Gary’s serves cobbler.
Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.