Cheré Dastugue Coen
The South's Unique Burgers
Thrifty Southerners created ways to stretch a meal by inventing their own versions of the hamburger.
When times were hard, southerners looked for innovative ways to feed their families. “Stretching a meal” involved adding cheap items to a dish, such as adding flour or oats to ground meat or spreading a piece of meat over a mound of rice, popular in rice regions such as Cajun Country. Both allowed cooks to feed more people.
Such was the case for hamburgers in several Southern towns.
Surry Ground Steak Trail
This month, folks in Surry County, N.C., launched the Surry Ground Steak Trail, highlighting 11 restaurants that serve a ground steak sandwich made with browned ground meat, flour and water or milk and seasoned with salt and pepper. The patty’s served on a bun with mayonnaise, slaw and tomato.
It’s believed that this flour-enhanced burger originated in the 1930s at the old Canteen Restaurant in Mount Airy before spreading to diners in Pilot Mountain, Elkin and Dobson.
“When the lunch whistle blew at textile factories in Mount Airy, workers would walk to Main Street for sandwiches, and one of those was ground steak,” said Travis Frye, coordinator of the Surry County Tourism Development Authority. “It was an affordable sandwich for blue-collar workers. It quickly spread, and people around the county started enjoying ground steak.”
Frye came up with the trail idea while organizing the dedication ceremony for a Hungry for History roadside marker that honors sonker, a local heritage dessert with its own trail. (Read more about the Sonker Trail here.)
“It piqued my interest because I saw there were stories to tell,” he said. “There’s a history to expand upon and something we have that differentiates us from any other county in North Carolina. We can claim two different dishes – one being sonker and one being ground steak.”
Visitors may purchase the ground steak sandwich at the 11 trail locations:
Mount Airy: Aunt Bea’s BBQ, Dairy Center, Martha Sue’s, Snappy Lunch and Speedy Chef.
Pilot Mountain: All Sauced Up BBQ, Aunt Bea’s BBQ and Cousin Gary’s.
Dobson: Central Café and Rockford General Store.
Elkin: Speedy Chef.
Freddy Hiatt purchased the Dairy Center in Mount Airy in the 1990s and learned ground steak’s history from its previous owner, Gene Fleming, who opened the eatery in 1954.
“It’s a soft, tender type of meat, and it does kind of melt in your mouth,” Hiatt said. “You can eat it without a lot of heavy chewing. Some people use ground chuck. We use the ground beef with higher fat to get a better flavor, a better taste. That’s what we’ve done all the years I’ve been here, and Gene did the same. I’ve always said if it works, there’s no reason to change it.”
The ground steak recipe at Cousin Gary’s in Pilot Mountain hasn’t changed since Gary Collins founded the diner in 1988. Gary was one of 18 children. They grew up on ground steak, and he made sure to get his mom’s beloved “secret” recipe when he opened.
The recipe stayed a family secret when Gary’s sister, Debbie Butner, bought the eatery, and remains so today as ownership has passed to Debbie’s daughter, Gina Erickson.
“It’s not like a hamburger that is tough, and you have to chew it up,” Erickson said. “When you take a bite, you’re eating it with the slaw and tomato, and it all just kind of comes together in your mouth. It’s really good.”
While the basics of making ground steak are similar, recipes vary per restaurant, as does the presentation. Some serve it on a plate (minus the bun) accompanied by sides. Others put ground steak on a breakfast biscuit.
“We serve it all day long, and I have a large customer base for breakfast who eat it with eggs, either as an egg-and-ground-steak sandwich or a ground steak omelet,” said Hiatt of the Dairy Center. “We fix it any way people request it.”
For information on the trail, or to download a trail map, visit www.GroundSteakTrail.org or call (336) 356-2110.
But there’s more!
The inaugural North Carolina Ground Steak Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, June 10, in downtown Dobson. Dobson’s Central Café will dish out ground steak sandwiches, along with the Flat Rock Ruritan Club, famous for serving the sandwich each year at the Autumn Leaves Festival in nearby Mount Airy. The day includes more than 50 artisans and crafters, bluegrass and old-time string music, and children’s games and activities.
Other Unique Southern Burgers and Their Festivals
Oklahoma incorporates onions, fried or otherwise, into its ground beef to create onion burgers.
In Tupelo, Miss., they add flour to the meat for “dough burgers,” a delicacy Elvis Presley enjoyed at the city's Johnnie's Drive-in.
In northeast Mississippi, specifically in Corinth, they serve up “slugburgers.” Ingredients may include pork or beef, soy, potato flakes and flour that’s deep-fried and topped with mustard, dill pickles and onions on a small bun.
The dough burger seems obvious but as for the slugburger name, there are many theories, including that the sandwich sold for a nickel, also known as a “slug,” in the early 20th century. Regardless of its origins, visitors to Corinth may order this unique sandwich at Borroum’s Drug Store which has been selling the burger since the Depression, the Slugburger Café and White Trolley, where the slugburger recipe remains unchanged since 1947.
And yes, Corinth hosts an annual Slugburger Festival every July, named by Trip Advisor as one of America’s “Wackiest Summer Events.” The event will July 7-8 this year (2023) and includes carnival rides, food venues, live music and a Miss Slugburger Pageant.
This post includes material from a Surry County Tourism press release.
Weird, Wacky & Wild South writer Cheré Dastugue Coen loves to travel the South searching for unique foodways.