Ask three people in Mount Airy where to get the best ground steak sandwich, and you’ll get three different answers, according to Troy Combs, a Mount Airy resident whose personal preference is Speedy Chef.
The Dairy Center and Odell’s Sandwich Shop round out the holy trinity of favorite ground steak purveyors, but beyond those front-runners, the list gets much longer if you ask a larger sample of people. Fifteen different cafes, lunch counters, drive-ins and restaurants (some of which have been closed for decades), and one vendor only open for business three days a year popped up in an informal survey of current and former Mount Airy residents.
But a more pertinent question for people who didn’t grow up in Mount Airy might be: “What is a ground steak sandwich?” Because the local delicacy is indeed very local. Stray very far from Mount Airy, even to the other end of the county, and a request for ground steak will likely be met with a blank stare.
“Ground steak” sounds like some kind of burger and looks a little like a sloppy Joe, but it isn’t exactly either. Aficionados will tell you it isn’t even close to either. It’s basically ground beef (preferably chuck) which is extended with flour and water, served on a bun that’s usually buttered and toasted, and topped off with cole slaw, tomato and mayo (or mustard, if you’re at Snappy Lunch).
Mount Airy folk remain devoted to their ground steak, despite it being a vestigial artifact of the Great Depression, as many people maintain. And they are devoted to their favorite source of ground steak sandwiches. Though it doesn’t happen as often as it used to, ‘Mama’ is often acknowledged to be the best of all possible sources for ground steak.
When Leigh Quesinberry announced on social media she had one Friday at her mom’s, who has been making them for years, she was called a lucky lady by Renee Queen, a member of the Mount Airy diaspora now living in Emerald Isle, who says she misses ground steak from back home.
But people who did not grow up in Mount Airy don’t always grasp the allure. Andrea Anderson, a Mount Airy resident who was raised in Lincoln County, is baffled by their popularity.
“It’s like a sloppy Joe, but without the tasty sauce. Why?” asks Andrea.
Mount Airy native Elizabeth Martin says she and her sister were trained early by their mother in the preparation of ground steak. When she was a young bride staying with her husband Gregg’s parents while he was on active duty at Camp Lejeune, she told his family one evening she would fix supper.
“Needless to say, until Gregg met me, he had never heard of ground steak,” said Martin, noting he grew up in the big city of Jonesville, just across the county line in Yadkin. “And neither had any of the other family members. They were very complimentary so as not to hurt my feelings, but they were not impressed and did not ask me to make supper again.”
Like any good legend, ground steak has a creation myth, and like a really good legend, it has several.
Tough economic times during the Depression of the 1930s are usually cited as the impetus to find a way to stretch costly meat to feed a family.
“When you’ve got 13 kids and half a pound of hamburger, you can’t beat ground steak,” says Bob Ward, a self-proclaimed expert on the subject who attributes his expertise to the fact that, as Ward says, “I’ve eaten more of them than anybody else.”
He also worked in his youth as a cook at The Canteen, a Main Street diner that closed in 1987 after 51 years and whose owner, Archie Barker, is often credited with inventing ground steak.
The Canteen still gets votes as a favorite ground steak resource despite not being in existence for more than 30 years. Even the building has been torn down and is now the site of Canteen Alley.
The Canteen was one of many downtown eateries catering to millworkers in the downtown textile mills when there were still mills in downtown Mount Airy. Workers only got a 20-minute break, according to Ward, so there was a need for food that was cheap and fast. Once a batch of ground steak has been made up, slapping some on a bun with the necessary condiments only requires a matter of seconds.
Another attribute of ground steak that is less often discussed is the fact that, as Bob Ward says, “Anybody could eat it. You could feed it to a baby.” It’s also a good choice for people who have what Ward euphemistically referred to as “dental concerns.”
“If you’ve got dental work, you can eat it.” Ward then implies, without actually saying, that ground steak is also a good option for folks who are in need of, but have not had, dental work. The implication being that food was not the only thing that was expensive during the Depression. So were dentures and fillings.
Dental dilemmas play a part in another origin story related by G.W. Bowman, who warns that there is no way to know of the story’s accuracy, what with it being cloaked in the mists of time.
“This might be a good place for a grain of salt,” advises Bowman, “but here it goes. Ground steak was started in an establishment at the square in Flat Rock. Men of the day would often fight. The cook needed something to sell to a person with loose teeth. The rest is unsubstantiated history. The place may have been named The Hub.”
Interestingly enough, and perhaps unrelated, the Flat Rock community pops up in another context in discussions of ground steak.
The Flat Rock Ruritan Club is reputed by many folks to make the best ground steak sandwiches, which they sell at Mount Airy’s Autumn Leaves Festival for three days in October. Most people think that’s the only time they’re available, but insiders will tell you they’re available at the Ruritan Club throughout the year.
“The Flat Rock Ruritan Club uses Ossie King’s recipe,” according to Bob Ward, which King, in turn, got from Gene Fleming, who opened the Dairy Center in 1954. The Dairy Center is one of the three restaurants most often cited as a favorite for ground steak, and its current owner, Freddy Hiatt, learned from Fleming more than 20 years ago.
“I try to do it exactly like he (Fleming) did it,” said Hiatt, as he was about to start the lunch rush with a steam table full of ground steak ready to scoop onto buns.
“When asked why fans of ground steak hold such entrenched preferences and what he does differently from his competitors, Hiatt says, “I can’t say that I do anything differently.”
“It’s the pepper,” says Bob Ward, who contends that the amount of black pepper — the only seasoning used in the dish —is what distinguishes one cook’s ground steak from another. “You choose your favorite depending on how much pepper your stomach can handle,” Ward says.
Despite its reputation as a food unique to Mount Airy, Elizabeth Martin says ground steak can, on very rare occasion, be found far from its point of origin.
“Our younger son’s college roommate (who is also from Mount Airy) got married and asked our son to be a groomsman in the wedding — in Montana. During the wedding planning, the groom told the chef doing the reception that he had one request for the reception food and that was ‘ground steak and slaw’ like the Dairy Center. Long story short, the chef called Freddy Hiatt at the Dairy Center to find out how to make this requested fare. The chef was taken aback when Freddy told him ‘Well, first you need an iron skillet’. Our son said the chef got the recipe close, but it was still not as good as the Dairy Center.”
Like the Montana chef, you, too, can make your own ground steak if you so desire. Brenda Goad will tell you how.
“I make ground steak sandwiches at home. So delicious with a big slice of tomato and mayo on a bun. Just brown the hamburger, drain, add flour, salt and pepper, and water. Bring to a boil and simmer until thickened. Add more seasoning as needed. I don’t measure anything.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.