“I grew-up in Smithfield. My Dad and his brother owned Heavner-Wallace Implement Company – which started as a mule company a very long time ago. But I was always around farms and farmers in the region,” says Emily Wallace, as I kick-off our time together with a question about growing-up with a love for food.

The answer, it turns out, is that Emily had no more love for food growing-up than any of us southern born and southern bred children can claim. I’ve talked at length in other blogs about how I feel the making, giving, receiving, and sharing of food is integrally tied to my personality. Emily and I share similar Johnston-County-based upbringings and so much of our conversation ends-up being a conversation about the philosophy of southern food as much as it ends-up being about Emily’s new book.

“Road Sides: An Illustrated Companion to Dining and Driving in the American South” is both written and illustrated by Smithfield-native Emily Wallace; her first book, but by no means her first foray into food writing. Lovers of the annual Ham & Yam Festival might have already read Emily’s article on the history of that event in “Ham to Ham Combat: The Tale of Two Smithfields” which she wrote a few years ago for Gravy magazine and for which she was a James Bread Award Finalist in Humor.

And so, from two JoCo girls with a love of all things food, what set Emily apart as a writer and scholar of Food, with a capital F, from me who simply enjoys making and consuming it? The answer, is in folklore. The literature lover in me immediately thinks of fairytales, fables, myths… but folklore is so much more than that. As Emily reminds me, folklore at its core is the passing of traditions from one generation to the next within a community – and, yes, it often involves stories – but it also includes beliefs, customs, and histories. It includes food.

“I decided on a Masters in folklore. That was when I formally got into food. It was more about looking at the stories behind food traditions – the people and the places. I had gone to college in Illinois and I came back to NC, to UNC Chapel Hill. The grad program was about questioning everything. I had a class where we were told to pick a food item and document it; I picked a local food manufacturer, Star Foods. I ended-up doing my masters thesis on pimento cheese.”

Yes, you read that right. Emily admitted that pimento cheese was a jumping off point, leading her to a deep dive into the stories and histories of country ham, red hot dogs, and more. She basically knows more about all my favorite foods than I ever care to know. But that’s what people like Emily are for, not to just tell us where to eat, but to explain what we’re eating and why we’re eating it. That knowledge is distilled into her new book.

“It’s an A-Z illustrated book of short essays of a cultural history of eating on the road in the South. Part travel guide,” Emily said it features specific places, like JoCo’s own Hills of Snow, “and part encyclopedia.”

Cover of a Book Illustrated with Cartoon Food Drawings.

Emily gave me a sneak peek and I can tell you that it’s as fun to read as it is informative. The A-Z part is made-up of concepts: A is architecture, B is for billboards, C is for Cars. Each concept has a corresponding place. More than that, I find as I read, are delightful tidbits of knowledge that draw you into the desire to know about each concept and place, just as assuredly as smell draws you into a desire to consume food. And even if you never get around to every place mentioned in Road Sides, the joy in what you’ll learn in the process of reading will leave you full like a good meal. I learned new things about places I’ve known all my life – Hills of Snow, Nahunta Pork Center, South of the Border. 

While the book covers the Southern 13 states in its list of roadside eats, the history, people, and cuisines it expands upon travel far beyond that. I asked Emily what limits or definitions she placed on the content of the book given that the title includes the words “the American South”.

“The book is primarily based in the South, but with an understanding that people and food travel. And that Southern food is always evolving. A lot of things that people think of as 'the most Southern' have come from other places. Pimento cheese is a good example. It's likely a product of Spain along with the pimiento pepper. But as that pepper made its way into southern soil, the spread found a place in our lunchboxes and work pails and buffets."

I asked her to expand a little on that, “a lot of things that we think of as Southern have come from other places, even pigs. But, of course, we all came from other places. And there are still people coming to the South from other places. There are dishes in the book that people probably wouldn’t think of as Southern, but it is something distinctly of the place where it is because it has been brought there.”

Emily currently works as the Deputy Editor and Art Director of the Quarterly Food Journal published by The Center for the Study of the American South. It covers the history and culture of the South. She has been there for 7 years and much of her academic and professional life has been building up in preparation for writing Road Sides.

“Some of the featured places in the book were places I’ve been thinking about for most of my life, others were places I’ve traveled to or known through my work as a folklorist. I also reached out to fellow writers and food folks for input and ideas. But, yes, I did visit all of the places that made it into the book, and quite a few that didn’t.”

Speaking of places that didn’t make the cut, books after all have to be edited down, one of Emily’s favorite Johnston County road side eats is the Biscuit Stop in Smithfield on Highway 301, “I grew up right down the street from the Biscuit Stop, and the sausage egg and cheese scramble on toast is my go-to.”

A cartoon drawing of a Smithfield NC Hills of Snow snowcone

One last thing I’ll point out, though I briefly mentioned it already, Emily did all her own illustrations for this book. The full-color cartoon-like drawings make a delightful addition to the book as you read along; and for the un-southern, bless their hearts, sometimes provide a welcome visual aid to un-heard-of concepts like nabs.

“My Grandma wrote stories and drew, so we always did that together,” Emily mentioned when I asked her about combining art with her writing, “it’s something I always did and enjoyed. I had awesome art teachers growing-up in Smithfield. I’ve always gravitated more towards that sort of comic-style illustration you see in the book.”

It was wonderful sitting down with Emily to talk food, folklore, JoCo, and more. I am excited for people to read the book, available where books are sold this month! I also, of course, hope people visit JoCo to experience our road side eats that made it into Emily’s book.

For those interested in meeting Emily and picking-up a signed copy of “Road Sides: An Illustrated Companion to Dining and Driving in the American South” you can attend an event being held at the Frank Creech Art Gallery in Smithfield on October 20th at 3PM. The Johnston County Arts Council will be hosting the event and Emily’s book will be for sale; she will be doing a brief reading and a Q&A, followed by book signing. You can learn more about it here.

For more about Emily, visit her website or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Portrait of Emily Wallace Smiling