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SAVOR & SIP A SENSE OF PLACE IN MOUNT AIRY

Updated: 3 days ago

It's an idyllic, storybook place. Little wonder that it became the iconic setting for the TV town of Mayberry. Thanks to the Andy Griffith show, Mount Airy is firmly entrenched as one of North Carolina's most visited small towns. But it isn't the show and memorabilia that captures my attention. Instead, I'm following my nose and discovering a diverse range of foodie delights from ground steak sandwiches and sonker to sipping wine and experiencing a curated chef's menu.


Words & Photographs Colleen Thompson



Initially settled in the 1750s, Mount Airy, North Carolina, is a small bucolic mountain town that started as a frontier trading center for travelers passing through. Since the 1960s, visitors have flocked here to glimpse highlights of the beloved Andy Griffith Show and where the actor spent his childhood. The town's history remains largely preserved, and visitors get to experience a little of what life was like in fictitious, idyllic "Mayberry" in the 60s, inspired by Mount Airy. But there's more to this foodie town than the show that made it famous.


It's not a Sloppy Joe. It’s a Ground Steak Sandwich.


Waking into The Speedy Chef on Main Street Mt. Airy feels a little like walking onto the set of “Stranger Things.” It's an authentic fast-food diner whose black & white vintage magnetic menu board has remained much the same since the 50s. The menu lists the usual cohorts, from burgers and hotdogs to waffles and sundaes, but I'm here for one reason, a ground steak sandwich. I meet Travis Frye, a Surry County native and ground steak aficionado and the mastermind behind a dedicated heritage food trail in tribute to this sandwich. He orders for us, and we make our way to the table with a ground steak sandwich wrapped in foil, fries and a Cheer Wine soda.


"It's a special sandwich that is ONLY found in Surry County, North Carolina," explains Frye. I unwrap the sandwich, which could be more appealing at first glance. A nondescript mound of loose ground beef sandwiched between a toasted hamburger bun, a layer of coleslaw and a slice of tomato on top. It lands somewhere between a hamburger and a sloppy joe. "I grew up eating a ground steak sandwich, originally made by my grandma, whose recipe I still use. It had its roots in the great depression when people needed to make food stretch, so they started mixing ground chuck with flour and milk," says Frye. One bite, and I'm starting to understand that this melt in your mouth humble sandwich is much more than the sum of its parts. And apparently, I'm not alone. There is now a dedicated Surry Ground Steak Trail, with 11 stops, all serving their own interpretations, along with a festival in celebration of this weird-but-wonderful sandwich.



It's not Pie. It's a Sonker.


I follow my nose to where the unmistakable sugary butter scent of freshly baked pastry is wafting down North Main Street. It leads me to Miss Angel's Heavenly Pies, a vintage-style bake shop with lipstick-pink walls, black & white checkered floors and glass cabinets that hold the contents of goodness. It's the kind of place I could hang out in and outstay my welcome. It's good that owner Angela Shur can bake and talk simultaneously. I am taste-testing in her busy kitchen on a Wednesday morning, where she churns out fresh strawberry muffins, strawberry & cream handheld cakes, and bite-sized cinnamon buns in the space of an hour. But I am not here for those. I'm here for Sonker or "Zonker," as Shur calls it.


A native New Yorker, Shur moved to Mt. Airy more than 20 years ago and found her slice of heaven on a 65-acre farm. The farm she and her husband, Randy, rejuvenated with over 1200 hundred fruit trees of apples, peaches, plums, apricots and pears – all find their way into the pies and Sonker at Miss Angel Heavenly Bake Shop. Sonker is a Surry County delicacy and like the ground steak sandwich, is only found here. So, what is a Sonker? There are different theories about the name's origin, but most think it's a derivative of the word sunk because the crust of a Sonker sinks into the fruit filling. "It's really a fruit pie, but deeper, juicier, and rectangular. It's traditionally made with sweet potatoes or apples, but I also make strawberry, pear and peach. And like all my pies, there's no sugar, only honey from my hives." she says. Many Sonkers are served with a cream and sugar dip, but Shur adds an extra twist. As she hands me a spoon to dig into the freshly baked, strawberry-oozing Sonker on the stainless-steel kitchen counter, she asks me if I want the pièce de résistance– the moonshine glaze. Looking at my face, she starts pouring with a smile without waiting for my answer.


Still in a sugary haze, I walk across the street to Prudence McCabe Confections. Owner Sue Heckman bakes a different version of Sonker – bite-sized apple ones. The store is named after Heckman's grandmother and flipping through her well-thumbed vintage recipe book in the kitchen, I immediately feel the connection to baking and heritage in this charming bakery. Heckman puts her spin on Sonker with bite-sized chewy, caramelized apple slices encased in a delicate buttery pastry. Just before the Sonkers are done, she removes them from the oven, grates butter over the top, sprinkles with and places them under the broil to create a golden crust. I'm beginning to understand that Sonker is made up of multiple versions - all of them are delicious. There are now seven stops on the Surry County Sonker Trail, each with its own interpretation of this heritage food.



A Chefs Table at Old North State Winery


Yes, there's a winery in downtown Mt. Airy. An unexpected and elevated delight in Mayberry town is visited by serious oenophiles and passing tourists alike. Housed in a former red brick hardware store built in 1890 on Main Street, where co-owner & winemaker Ben Webb and his wife Ellie have created a sophisticated urban space with a vintage aesthetic, keeping the original pressed tin ceilings and solid oak floors. Rather than house the winery at the vineyard, Webb located Old North State in downtown Mt. Airy to re-establish the downtown area as a vibrant, growing economic center. The actual winery is located beneath the restaurant. For a real sense of place and an elevated dining experience, reserve the Chefs Table menu, prepared by Executive Chef Logan Young and paired with a selection of wines by sommelier Ed Badgett III. The beautifully prepared and presented four-course tasting menu showcased the best of North Carolina produce. North Carolina Fat Belly Oysters topped with Kaluga Caviar, Bristol Bay Sea Scallops and Benton bacon with locally grown ramp pesto. A perfectly seared 4oz beef tenderloin with chanterelle mushrooms, spring truffle pecorino, and a trio of desserts completed this gastronomical adventure. The quality of the dishes and the attention to detail in their presentation made this a memorable dining experience in this charmingly delightful town.  



Where to Stay

Nestled in wine country in the foothills of the Yadkin Valley in the county of Surry, Round Peak Vineyards offers two cabins for rent on the 12-acre vineyards and winery. Conveniently, they are just a fifteen-minute drive away from downtown Mt. Airy and surrounding areas, making it easy to explore the region. It's an idyllic way to spend time sipping a glass of estate-grown, ice-cold Vidal Blanc overlooking sunlit vineyards and the Blue Ridge mountains as the backdrop. Owner and winemaker Ken Gulaian is a great host and produces a range of terroir-driven wines, beer and cider, all worth sampling in the winery's tasting room. Round Peak Vineyards is a member of Harvest Hosts, which is a network of farms, wineries, breweries & distilleries that sallows RVers to stay overnight.



For more information and trip planning to Mount Airy check in here: Visit Mount Airy: www.visitmayberry.com

Surry County Tourism: https://www.yadkinvalleync.com

Ground Steak Trail: groundsteaktrail.org

Surry Sonker Trail: sonkertrail.org


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