Emily Wallace to teach SIPA attendees the value of going “Off Topic”

One of the greatest lessons Emily Wallace ever learned as a writer was to question everything, even the origin of a spreadable sandwich cheese.

Wallace gained national notoriety with her Master’s thesis for UNC Chapel Hill, the title of which was “It Was There for Work: Pimento Cheese in the Carolina Piedmont”. A Southern native, Wallace lived and worked in Chicago for years before returning to North Carolina for graduate school. As soon as she got back, she went to the grocery store and stocked up on Ruth’s and Star’s pimento cheese, the same brands that filled her family refrigerator when she was growing up. She decided there must be a story in the history of these brands and the cheese that has become a signature staple of Southern cuisine. The topic of Wallace’s 80 page thesis resonated with readers all over the country.

“Pimento cheese means something to a lot of different people,” said Wallace. “It crosses race and class lines, and it is intricately connected to memory. To talk about it is to talk about a specific place or person—your grandmother’s kitchen table or your factory break-room, your Uncle Billy or your neighbor Pat.”

Wallace currently works as a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. Her work, primarily focused on food and culture, has been published in The Washington Post, Our State, the Indy Week and Culture. When she attends the SIPA convention later this month as a guest speaker, she will use her experience to teach “Off Topic,” a session about the value of unexpected answers and the ways interviewing can lead to surprising new stories. Wallace learned this lesson first hand while researching her obscure thesis topic. Though she started with a general story on pimento cheese, her extensive research and interviews led her to study the history of Duke’s mayonnaise, another signature staple of the South, and the culture of the textile mill industry in Southern states.

“I had to don a lot of hairnets to gain access to factory lines,” said Wallace. “But once I actually got through the door at a company or restaurant that specialized in making pimento cheese, I found that people were generally excited to talk about their work and their brand. It was really about getting the conversation started.”

Wallace’s writing career has roots in scholastic journalism. She was on her high school yearbook staff for four years, serving as co-editor for three of them. She also helped revive her school’s newspaper which was out of print. She hopes the scholastic journalism students who attend SIPA will leave the convention with a desire to seek out stories in unexpected places.

“Story possibilities are everywhere, even in a jar of mayonnaise.”

Editor’s Note: Emily Wallace will be teaching the sessions “Going off Topic” and The (Illustrated) Tablet” at this year’s convention.