The origin of the ground steak sandwich is somewhat of a mystery, but one thing is certain — ground steak sandwiches are rooted firmly in Surry County, and the beloved sandwich remains one of the most popular menu items at local sandwich shops and restaurants throughout the county.
Like with all good stories and legends, the origin of the ground steak sandwich is hard to pin down, and may change depending on who is telling the story.
It seems simple —start with ground beef or ground chuck, depending on which recipe used. Cook until brown, adding salt, pepper, and flour. Serve on a bun, preferably with cole slaw and mayonaise.
Yet, even with a seemingly simple recipe, it is the small touches that can make a huge difference. Even the order of combining and adding ingredients, the pan used, the level of heat, the amount of pepper used, the way the meat is cooked — it all adds up into a wide variety of ground steak sandwiches gracing the menus of Surry County diners and restaurants.
Venturing too far outside of Surry County lines and ordering a ground steak sandwich will receive a wide-eyed response of confusion, because, like the sonker, the ground steak sandwich is unique to this area.
The idea for the sandwich most likely started during the lean years of the Great Depression, when meat was often rationed, and home cooks, as well as restaurant cooks, were looking for a way to extend their meat purchase. Ground chuck was cheaper than ground beef, and contains a higher fat content, and it is still the preferred meat used in ground steak sandwiches. Like another Surry County tradition, the breaded cheeseburger, meat was extended by adding filler, in the case of the ground steak sandwich, that was flour mixed in to create a thicker texture.
Freddy Hiatt, owner of The Dairy Center, said the ground steak was a more economical sandwich, and agreed the origins began during the 1930s. “It was a way for cooks to make the meat last longer, and everyone loved it so it stuck around,” Hiatt said.
No one remembers where the first ground steak was served, but only that it is wide-spread throughout the local area, found in every sandwich shop and diner with any kind of history, as well as the newcomers to the scene who want to appeal to local traditions.
There was a time when a diner, cafe, and/or sandwich shop was on almost every street corner in town, or at least one in every neighborhood. Those taking breaks from working in the mills in and around downtown Mount Airy needed cheap food, so they would visit one of many restaurants along the streets, with most of the places serving ground steak sandwiches, as far back as anyone alive today can remember.
Many attribute the first ground steak sandwich, or at least the name, to The Canteen, a diner in downtown Mount Airy run by Archie Barker and his wife Margaret. The Canteen closed in 1987, and it was a place that many remember as having a great jukebox and plenty of “old faithfuls” who had eaten there since they were kids, and it was known for miles around by many as having the best ground steak sandwiches in the county. Barker died in March of last year, but left behind a pile of memories of his restaurant, including the attribution that he served the first ground steak sandwich.
The building that housed The Canteen was purchased by the city and torn down to allow a passageway to a parking lot. Archie Barker worked at The Canteen for 51 years, and his father James Barker and business partner Lee Dunman opened The Cottage Canteen Luncheonette in 1934.
Ron Leonard shared that Charles Dowell, the late owner of Snappy Lunch, said he worked with Raymond Hendricks (owner of the old Raymond’s Lunch) and Archie Barker, and Dowell gave credit to Barker for creating the ground steak sandwich.
Bob Ward, who now lives in Tennessee but once was a cook at The Canteen with Barker, said the best way to cook ground steak is to start with a “black skillet” or a cast iron skillet, and cook the meat until it crumbles easily. “Then take your potato masher and push all of the hamburger up to one side…that just leaves a puddle of grease there, hamburger grease,” Ward shared. “Take and coat the bottom of a pan with flour, cook it…it will turn dark, keep adding flour to it, making that rue. Then begin to stir in the hamburger, you incorporate it into the rue, then add your milk to the rue, let it cook a little at a time, and it will build a solid gravy base. The last thing you do is salt it, because the gravy will set up when it is salted…you can go ahead and pepper it first… .”
Ward said The Canteen often called it “steak and gravy,” but it was the same as the ground steak, and many people who ate there asked for a “ground steak sandwich” instead of calling it “steak and gravy” as it was referred to on the menu that hung in The Canteen.
Today, the trifecta of ground steak sandwiches is, for most, The Dairy Center, Speedy Chef, and Odells Sandwich Shop, according to a ground steak sandwich poll posted for three months on Facebook, in a group for sharing memories, “If you grew up in Mount Airy, NC, you remember… .”
Speedy Chef came out on top in the poll, followed closely by The Dairy Center, with Odells not far behind. For a sandwich that contains basically the same ingredients, each restaurant’s ground steak has a noted difference in taste, but many commented that their vote was swayed by the strong pull of nostalgia, a preference for one restaurant over the other based on the complex combination of memories and tradition.
Other contenders for best ground steak included Colt’s Hot Dog Shack in White Plains, Porky’s, West Pine Kitchen, Aunt Bea’s, Porky’s, and Snappy Lunch.
The ground steak sandwich is traditionally served “all the way,” which includes coleslaw, tomato, and mayonnaise. Some may add onion, mustard, or hot sauce, but the vast majority of those who order just say “all the way,” employees at the Dairy Center agreed. Owner Freddy Hiatt said the ground steak sandwich makes up about 35 to 40 percent of sandwiches they sell each day.
The secret to the ground steak, Hiatt shared, is boiling the meat instead of frying it, then draining the grease and letting it rest, before adding salt, pepper, and flour. “We do it just like Gene made it, it’s Gene’s recipe,” Hiatt said, referring to Gene Flippen, one of the two individuals who started The Dairy Center. “And the 50-year seasoned pots we used, that helps too,” Hiatt added, with a huge smile — “We have a lot of people come in who have been eating our ground steaks all their lives, so we do what we’ve done for years, just carry on the tradition.”
Steve Lee, who has worked “on and off” at The Dairy Center for 20 years, since he was in high school, and Lee put together a ground steak sandwich in a flash, taking only about four seconds to pile on the meat, coleslaw, and mayo.
Local residents Henry Jones and John Edwards ate lunch at Speedy Chef recently, ground steak sandwiches of course, and a lively discussion of local history, including all the old restaurants in town that once served the sandwich.
Both men agreed that Pate Martin’s on Old Hollow Road was one of the first places they remembered eating the ground steak sandwich. Other restaurants they recalled that served the sandwich through the years, establishments that have since shut down, included Colonial Cafe, Wade’s Cafe, Raymond’s Lunch, B&H Cafe on Virginia Street, Cozy Corner Cafe, The Chow House, Sweet Sue’s, Blue Ridge Restaurant, and Wolfe’s Drug Store, among others.
Jones is a member of the Flat Rock Ruritan club, and the group has been serving up ground steak sandwiches at their Autumn Leaves Festival booth since the early years of the festival. The money they make at the booth is used to run the Ruritan club for the rest of the year, including charitable donations. Many don’t realize they can also purchase the sandwiches straight out of the Ruritan Club in Flat Rock, Jones added, on Linville Road near Hemmings Superette.
“I don’t really know the recipe, I’m not involved in cooking it, but I know it tastes better when the pans get seasoned, the second and third batches taste better than he first,” Jones said. “I am haulin’ it back and forth for three days during the festival, and have for I don’t know how many years.”
Like the sonker, with many claiming it is just another name for cobbler, those who grew up in the area say the ground steak is not just another loose meat sandwich — it is Surry County’s own version, perhaps once created when the need arose to extend the weekly meat purchase, but now it is a sandwich preferred by many, one that evokes memories of the “good ole’ days” when life seemed simpler, and it is a sandwich that will always grace the menus of Surry County restaurants.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.