An eccentric state has its fair share of eccentric foods, from apple uglies to Tom Thumb sausage, and the ground steak sandwich.
Every North Carolinian knows barbecue, Cheerwine and Krispy Kreme, but have you ever heard of yock? Or enjoyed a sonker after your ground steak sandwich?
North Carolina is home to a spate of hyper-regional culinary delicacies, and these foods not only pique the palate, they also give us a peek into the history of our state. Read on for some under-the-radar NC dishes you have to try.
Ground Steak Sandwich, Mount Airy
Mount Airy may be best known as Andy Griffith’s hometown and the inspiration for his fictional Mayberry, but the foothills hamlet has another claim to fame—the ground steak sandwich.
Born during the lean years of the Great Depression to make meat stretch further, the sandwich is made with a chili-like mixture of ground beef, water, flour and spices. You can order them how you want, but the classic is topped with coleslaw, tomato and mayonnaise, served on a bun.
Sonker, Surry and Wilkes counties
Though it’s cooked in a baking dish with fruit and crust, don’t call it a cobbler. In the foothills counties of Surry and Wilkes, this dessert is a sonker.
The origins of the dish are murky, and recipes vary — some call for crust on the bottom or sides, others don’t.
But the best-known version is made with bubbly, baked fruit—anything from strawberries to peaches to blackberries—with a batter made of flour, sugar, milk and butter dropped on top of the fruit before baking. The result is a fruity confection with a top crust that’s more like cake than pie.
Tom Thumb, Eastern North Carolina
Long a holiday dish for eastern North Carolina families, Tom Thumb sausage recently received national attention thanks to Kinston’s resident culinary celebrity, chef Vivian Howard.
Howard featured the sausage on an episode of her PBS series, “A Chef’s Life,” explaining how her family ate Tom Thumb every New Year’s Day.
A dry sausage, Tom Thumb is traditionally made right after a hog killing with fresh hot sausage stuffed inside the pig’s appendix and then hung to cure in the smokehouse. The air-drying process has long been tradition in the eastern part of the state, where dry “country style” sausage reigns supreme.
Yock, Elizabeth City and Tidewater region
Found mostly in the Tidewater regions of North Carolina and Virginia, yock marries the food traditions of Chinese immigrants and African American communities in one delicious dish.
According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, yock was first introduced to coastal North Carolina by Chinese immigrants during the early 20th century, with some theories suggesting the dish found its way into African American communities because segregation kept Chinese eateries out of predominantly white areas.
As African Americans adopted the dish, they gave it their own spin, bringing it to today’s version, which is often spaghetti or lo mein noodles topped with chicken, pork or shrimp, diced onions, sometimes a hard-boiled egg, and a broth made with ketchup and soy sauce.
If you’re a yock purist, you’ll be looking for yock-a-mein noodles or lo mein noodles. Places like Norfolk Noodle Factory in Virginia specialized in the noodles before going out of business in 1990.
Eateries like Uncle Chuck’s Soul Food Cafe in Elizabeth City are known for the dish.
Though tiny and often hard to find, ramps are beloved by chefs for their bold flavor and pungent aroma.
Native to the North Carolina mountains, the tiny onions are smaller and more delicate than shallots, with a stronger flavor than leeks or scallions. Ramps are usually foraged, and they only grow during a short season in the spring, making them a true delicacy.
But fans flock to Waynesville each spring to celebrate the tiny vegetable during the annual Ramp Festival, usually held in early May.
Apple Uglies, Buxton
As the name implies, apple uglies aren’t the prettiest pastry you’ll eat, but Outer Bankers will tell you it’s the tastiest.
Born at the Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton—an island fixture that began as a motel in the 1950s and converted to a bakery in 1979—the ugly is made with leftover doughnut dough, apples and cinnamon, deep fried together. The result is a lumpy blob of pure deliciousness that inspires tourists and locals alike to line up early outside the bakery to score them fresh from the fryer.