The Big (Pimento) Cheese

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Posted on: Friday, March 28th, 2014 by Brent Treash
If you need to know the proper grammatical usage for the word

If you need to know the proper grammatical usage for the word "grits" – look no farther than Emily Wallace, E&H Class of 2004.  Emily studied creative writing and art at Emory & Henry, earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and earned a master’s degree in folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill – and in the process she managed to find a niche in the world of food and academia that is now feeding her career.

Emily is the deputy editor of Southern Cultures (www.southerncultures.org), a 20-year-old academic journal produced by The Center for the Study of the American South at UNC – where she happens to be the Director of Communications. In addition to this full-time venture, she also works as a freelance writer and artist contributing articles and illustrations for a wide array of publications including The Washington Post, Indy Week, Our State magazine, GOOD magazine, and the Oxford American – just to name a few. She was the featured illustrator for the 2013 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium – adding her talent and quirky humor to tea towels, notepads and symposium swag.

She has written revealing articles and scholarly works on things commonly found on our pantry shelves like Duke’s Mayonnaise, the Oreo Cookie, and pimento cheese. In fact, her master’s thesis was on pimento cheese. More about that later! She creates art that combines her humor with her appreciation for food, including an illustration for Our State that explains the difference between “Quick, Grits!” and “Quick Grits;” a drawing for the Indy Week that highlights the allure of “discounted and desperate closeout candy;” and an illustrated show-down between cake and pie about who’s the best (in the end, they both get served).

In short, Emily has found a niche for herself in the food world as a sought-out contributor. So how does that happen?

While working on her master’s at UNC, she took a course that changed the direction of her studies. I signed up for a food writing class in hopes to strengthen my writing with little regard of the topic, but was introduced to a field of study that's now an important part of my career. We were tasked with documenting someone or something in the food industry, and my topic—pimento cheese—became much more than the simple sandwich spread I knew from my childhood in North Carolina. It provided a window into working class experience, memory, and regional identity, and became the focus of my master’s thesis and subsequent articles.”

Recently she’s been asked to speak and write about Duke’s mayonnaise following a Washington Post article on the popular southern staple. She jokes, “I’m sort of on the mayonnaise circuit lately.” But more often than not, she’s asked to talk about pimento cheese. Several years ago she was invited by the Southern Foodways Alliance to speak on this topic and was excited to run into E&H’s Dr. Ed Davis who was there to talk about collard greens. She says she wasn’t surprised to find Dr. Davis, a geography professor, at a symposium about food. “We didn't have a food studies program at Emory & Henry, but we were encouraged to think creatively across disciplines. He was there doing that with his work on culture and collards, and I was there to talk similarly about pimiento peppers.”

As a student, Emily worked in the Appalachian Center for Community Service as an Appalachian Associate, and she says her time in that role prepared her for much of the work she is doing now. “The Appalachian Center taught me the value of working within a community and learning from other people's stories and experiences. Along with studying southern writers in the English department, it informed my decision to document and the study the region where I'm from, understanding that no story is too small or too obscure. It's no coincidence that I've landed at a similar place--the Center for the Study of the American South--which also emphasizes regional scholarship in national and global contexts.”

You can enjoy Emily’s writing and artwork at her website: www.eewallace.com