Author, editor and illustrator Emily Wallace brings foods from the South to life with cartoonish doodles and a knack for storytelling
By Brooke Spach
The Bull City is home to renowned chefs, brewers and sommeliers, which makes it a utopia for foodies. It’s also a great place to live if you’re a food illustrator like Emily Wallace, an author and full-time art director and deputy editor for UNC’s Southern Cultures magazine. She lives in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood with her husband, Land Arnold, and their shaggy dog, Fred.
One of her most prominent projects is “Road Sides: An Illustrated Companion to Dining and Driving in the American South,” an A-Z guide for staying well-fed when traveling through the Southern states. Released in October 2019, the book begins in Emily’s hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina, with the letter “A” for architecture and a spotlight on the giant blue snow cone that is Hills of Snow, which, you guessed it, sells snow cones. Emily attributes the origins of “Road Sides” to the iconic building and the roadside culture that surrounded it, which captured her attention throughout adolescence.
“Roads are a literal way to bring together lots of interests from different places,” she says. “The roads are what connect them.”
Emily moved to the Triangle in 2010 to attend UNC for her master’s degree “in pimento cheese” according to her website (technically, her master’s is in folklore with a concentration on food studies, but she wrote her thesis on the quintessential Southern spread). She also wrote and illustrated articles and comics for INDY Week’s food section during this time and was hired to create artwork for Scratch Bakery.
An avid doodler since childhood, Emily says she found her passion for food artistry in grad school. She planted her roots in Durham after graduation and began focusing her art on what she’d been studying: food. She says she’s always been captivated by food labels and restaurant signage, so it seemed like a natural fit to incorporate those interests into her artwork.
Emily says “Road Sides” feels like an extension of her day job at Southern Cultures, where she tries to tell the larger story of the South and dig deeper into its history. She says that if she were to add one Durham location to the book’s list, it’d be Saltbox Seafood Joint, thanks in no small part to chef and owner Ricky Moore’s fresh seafood dishes.
“In creating the book, I could have featured just North Carolina or just this area,” she says. “I had to work hard to not have my North Carolina or Durham bias.”
Still, her life in Durham has opened doors to many other artistic opportunities. Most recently, she’s created artwork and signage for Land’s business, Letters Bookshop, which reopened in a new downtown location at 116 W. Main St. in July. She also just finished two large wooden cutouts created for display at Parker & Otis – a cartoonish jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise and a French’s mustard bottle – and is now “continuing her mayonnaise work” with a temporary tattoo commission for Duke’s.
Emily says Durham provided a community of artists and food lovers who grew into her support network, and that being a part of this diverse collective pushes her to think about things in new ways.
“I feel like I’m constantly being challenged by my peers and colleagues and friends, which is awesome,” she says. “I found my place and footing here.”