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Ground Steak Festival, trail to honor local legend

Food has a direct attachment to memory as the crowd was told last year when the Hungry for History marker denoting the home of the sonker was revealed in Dobson. It was fitting that a tasty treat with a funny name would be elevated and recognized with the first such marker from the Pomeroy Foundation.

Travis Frye is the tourism coordinator for both the county and the Town of Dobson and as such he conceived another idea to elevate one of Surry County’s favorites to sonker-level status. The humble ground steak sandwich is known to folks who live in and around Surry County, but Frye said the farther you go from these hills — the less likely you are to know what a ground steak sandwich is.

To change that Frye wants to turn the spotlight on the ground steak sandwich and he is launching an initiative including a ground steak website to educate, a ground steak trail to highlight the ten local restaurants serving this unique Surry County dish, and a new arts and crafts event to be called the North Carolina Ground Steak Festival to be held Saturday, June 10 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Dobson Square Park will host the event and Crutchfield and Atkins streets will also be closed to allow folks ease of access to this new family friendly event.

At the festival will be the Flat Rock Ruritans and Central Cafe of Dobson as the primary purveyors of ground steak at the festival. Frye said due to staffing and need to remain open that not all the participants of the ground steak trail will be serving at the event. Those not currently signed up are welcome to contact Frye if they would like to join in.

He said it made good sense to have the Ruritans participate given their long association and deep ties to the area from their years serving ground steak sandwiches at the Autumn Leaves Festival in Mount Airy. Including Central Cafe of Dobson added another option and was good cross promotion for a local eatery from the tourism chief.

On the stage there will be bands at the amphitheater and WPAQ will be broadcasting the event live on radio and streaming it online. Ten local bands with blue grass and old-time string music will be featured that Frye said, “are reflective of our area and heritage.”

Bands will play for an hour to allow them to get into their set and feel the groove said Frye, a musician himself who said as the coordinator he would be too busy to partake in performing. The goal is to have variety in the music selection while highlighting area performers and the local sound of Surry County.

Adding another element will be a juried craft show of handmade goods. Frye said it would be unfair to compare the new event to Autumn Leaves Festival, which he oversaw before exiting that role for the dual tourism job he has now. It took years and effort to grow Autumn Leaves to be the largest such event in the county and one of the largest in the Southeast and the Ground Steak Festival is going to start small.

He said there are about 50 arts and crafts vendors lined up for the event and with his many contacts from coordinating the Autumn Leaves Festival, he said there will be some similar faces showing off their wares in Dobson but there will be fresh faces too. The goal is to draw attention to artisans and crafters from this area along with talented local musicians while enjoying the hero of the day: the ground steak sandwich.

“I am sort of a foodie at heart and I was thinking if we have a barbeque festival, a chicken festival, and an apple festival then why can’t we have a ground steak festival?” Frye mused.

Food brings up memories: the smells and sounds of the kitchen can transport someone to another place instantly. Frye recalls growing up how his great-grandmother would often cook for him. “I’d come in and smell the smells. I’d sit on the couch, and I remember the sounds and smells of great-grandma in the kitchen.”

“We’d sit together, and we’d eat the ground steak she made in her cast iron skillet. I don’t know what it was about that skillet,” Frye said pulling a recollection forward, “but it holds a memory for me. Maybe this festival can bring back memories for other people too.”

Memories cloud with time and there is a tad of disagreement on who made ground steak first. “The Dairy Center and Speedy Chef both lay claim but that’s part of the allure – we really don’t know where it came from.”

He traced the sandwich back through archival records and found it mentioned in the 1930s during the Great Depression. That makes sense he said as the ground steak was “a simple sandwich for blue collar workers” in the mills of Mount Airy.

When the whistle or bell called for lunch, he said workers flocked to Main Street and ground streak sandwiches were among items found at the Canteen being made by Archie Barker dating back to 1936, according to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.

Making limited food do more was a hallmark of the Depression era and Frye made an interesting comparison between the sonker and ground steak: both were meant to use what was available and make it stretch as far as it could go. Beef, salt/pepper, flour, and milk (sometimes) he said are all that make a ground steak sandwich.

It may have been an organic development that came from home kitchens across the area during the Depression that so many folks were making a variation of ground steak sandwiches at the same time with their own tweaks and variations. Likely one such recipe moved from a home kitchen to Main Street and spread from there, Frye mentioned.

The sonker and ground steak sandwich share that fuzzy origin story with no firm genesis to be found. While the sonker has now had its day in the sun thanks its historical marker and recognition; Frye wants ground steak to be considered as well.

“From humble beginnings the ground steak sandwich has a story to tell, and if it brings in tourists – well, we have stories to tell,” Frye said before affirming, “Do I like ground steak? No. I don’t like it – I love it.”



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