Emily Wallace will talk about her research on the cult status of Duke’s Mayonnaise for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina

(CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

Emily Wallace is that girl you sat next to in college, the down-to-earth brainiac who saw connections before you did and didn’t stress out when research papers were assigned. Even her doodles were more clever than yours.

Equally intrigued by vast cultural movements and minutia, Wallace quickly distinguished herself in the field of Southern studies— no surprise to those who knew her. She currently serves as communications director for the UNC Center for the Study of the American South and is editor of its acclaimed journal, Southern Cultures. (Disclosure, Wallace is also an occasional contributor to the INDY.)

But what a relief it is to know that, like the rest of us, she can still be caught off guard.

As part of her ongoing research on pimento cheese—her master’s thesis topic, in which varied recipes say much about place and food politics—Wallace ventured last summer to Richmond, Va., to tour the C.F. Sauer Co. plant. It’s where Duke’s Mayonnaise is produced in faithful memory of its inventor, homemaker-turned-entrepreneur Eugenia Duke.

Duke’s mayo has stirred passionate debate over the years, especially during peak tomato sandwich season. Its otherwise mild-manned devotees have been known to argue over fences with neighbors, cast a wary stink eye at plates of deviled eggs at church suppers and even wear their heart’s desire tattooed on their sleeve.

So when Wallace was told about the abundant fan mail, including paintings, Sauer receives for its flagship product, she had to take pause. Back home in the Triangle, she dedicated her own instantly recognizable style to a rendition of a yellow-lidded jar of Duke’s.

“My drawing was nothing compared to what they showed me,” says Wallace, who reportedly blushed the color of ketchup to learn she was among an ardent subset of Duke’s lovers who expressed their affection via creative arts.

The slather that Duke created in the 1910s, years before women earned the right to vote, has a slightly sweet and distinctive tang from cider vinegar and became a signature of her fledgling Duke’s Sandwich Co. business. The woman-owned enterprise, which by then employed her husband, other family members and locals, expanded in 1923 to satisfy consumer demand for bottled, take-home jars of her mayo. In 1929, when the business became too big to manage independently, she sold it to Sauer. Duke later launched a similar operation in California, cleverly named Duchess Sandwich Co.

To many, Duke’s mayo is one of the things that define Southern cooking, both in homes and some of the most savvy chef-run kitchens. The familiar yellow-capped jar also tends to find a place in the refrigerators of Southern transplants, even among those who grew up elsewhere using Hellman’s or, bless your heart, Miracle Whip.

Wallace learned much about Duke’s and the strong set of emotions it inspires when she prepared a presentation on the topic for last fall’s annual symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance , which likewise spotlights her creative drawings and informed writing. Her talk generated lively, point by point Twitter relays and spirited analysis. Joe Yonan, food editor of The Washington Post, later published her remarks under the headline Duke’s Mayonnaise: The Southern spread with a cult following. The story includes the recipe for a decadent chocolate cake that uses Duke’s in the moist batter.

Wallace will recount much of her research in a talk for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC). She also will share more recent discoveries from an interview conducted with Eugenia Duke’s great-granddaughter, who lives in Charlotte.

“She’s 86 or 87 now and she remembers how driven Eugenia was,” Wallace says. “I’ve learned a lot from her and have continued to stay in touch, which is rewarding.”

Jill Warren Lucas is a founding member of CHOP NC who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.