Kicking off the Holiday Season with Pies for Simply Gluten-Free

"And they're off!" My grandpa would begin one of his classic jokes. In the fast-paced clip of a horse race announcer, he continued, "It's cabbage by a head, carrot in a bunch. Toothpaste being squeezed out on the rail. 

"And Diaper, bringing up the rear!" That last sentence always came with a special gravitas. 

It was a perennial favorite. We would ask him to tell it to us again and again. Recalling it now, I can still clearly hear his voice.

Those familiar words came back to me yesterday. 

The day after Halloween, and the holiday season is upon us. So often it feels like the gates opening with the crack of a starting pistol as we bear, full speed ahead, towards the Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We got to sample some holiday joy a little early this year, when Stephen and I worked on gluten free holiday pies for Simply Gluten-Free Magazine. From the flour blend and pie crust recipe, to fillings for a cranberry-apple galette and spiced rum and sweet potato hand pies, I got to build these recipes one piece at a time. Finding cranberries in August was no simple matter. (Thank you, Whole Foods, for pulling through on that one.) I didn't arrive at these recipes without some help, either. The filling for the Butter Pecan White Chocolate Mousse came from my Aunt BJ. The result is a family favorite I still remember tasting for the first time. (You might remember her from the Hungarian Goulash post this summer. She is an excellent baker and cook.) 

Part of the joy of the holidays is the sense of anticipation they create. Sharing them today fulfills some of my own anticipation. After testing pie crusts and sampling fillings, those recipes are now displayed on magazine racks around the country, and I finally get to share the tear sheets. I think the images are among the best that Stephen and I have worked on together. 

I hope you enjoy this visual taste of the holiday sweets to come. For the recipes, get your copy of Simply Gluten-Free.

Family Recipes, Part 2: George Washington's birthday and mom's chicken soup

Growing up, I counted my grandma among my biggest heroes. She always had things for us to do, and new adventures to embark upon. From homemade fetticini noodles, to little water color painting sets and embroidering lessons, to kitchen-sink science experiments—everything we did had a little lesson to be learned, a nugget of knowledge to take away. I can see so much of who I've become in the natural curiosity she helped cultivate in me. 

Grandma "running eggs" at their chicken farm in Colorado. She was nothing if not a hard and dedicated worker. 

Grandma "running eggs" at their chicken farm in Colorado. She was nothing if not a hard and dedicated worker. 

Among her most outstanding achievements was our annual celebration of George Washington's birthday. Each February, she would turn off her electric lights and we would share a meal lit only by candles and oil lamps. To complete the scene, we would all dress up in 17th-century style. I remember my dad emerging from my parents' bedroom in black sweatpants tucked into white tube socks. He even converted an old hat into a tri-cornered symbol of American revolutionary spirit. As girls, we had it a little easier. We wore whatever long, dress-up dresses we had stashed among our toys, and my mom made little colonial-style white caps for us. (Clearly, grandma had willing and able collaborators.)

Was our celebration of George Washington's birthday a little silly? Perhaps. I suppose the whole idea was birthed out of trips to Colonial Williamsburg, and a shared love for history among my parents and grandparents. As a kid, it was full of imaginative possibilities. No wonder I went on to pursue history full-time. The best part was that grandma never broke character. There was no cynicism in her recreation, no laughing at herself, only a little flair for the dramatic. It lent gravitas to the scene, and made it that much more realistic and significant to everyone else. 

A young me, proudly posing before our dimly-lit colonial dinner table. Apparently, they pulled out all the stops in George Washington's day with blue paper napkins. 

A young me, proudly posing before our dimly-lit colonial dinner table. Apparently, they pulled out all the stops in George Washington's day with blue paper napkins. 

The memories of George Washington's birthday came back to me while making my mom's chicken soup the other day. Since my immediate family no longer lives in Colorado, and my grandparents' farm—the setting for the birthday festivities—was sold 20 years ago, food has become an important link to fond memories of the past. As I smelled the soup on the stove, I thought, "It smells like home." Not our physical house, but the feeling of being at home. If the smell of home exists, for me, it is made-from-scratch chicken soup. 

I don't remember exactly what we ate during the birthday. Considering grandpa's sweet tooth, I have no doubt that a historically inaccurate cake was involved, probably of the chocolate variety. Whatever else was on the table, I'm sure it was hearty, warm, and satisfying—like my mom's soup.  

I love the interconnection between food and memory. I love that tastes and smells can instantaneously transport us through time and space. It makes me wonder what kind of flavors will mark the memories of my life now. What will the early years of our marriage "taste" like? (I have a feeling barbecue sauce will be involved, but that's the subject of another blog post)

So in honor of George Washington's upcoming birthday, and the precious memories I have attached to it, I thought I'd share mom's soup recipe. It cooks slowly, as good things do. Hopefully it will warm your heart the same way it continues to warm mine. 

Mom's Chicken Soup
Serves: 10-12   Time: 3 hours

Ingredients:
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 whole young chicken
8-10 cups of water
1 bunch carrots, sliced horizontally
1 bunch celery, sliced horizontally
1 cup brown rice
1-2 cubes chicken bouillon (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish: 1/2 cup parsley, chopped

Directions:

  1. Heat oil in the bottom of a large stock pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion, and stir regularly until onion is clear — about 2 minutes. 
  2. Add the whole chicken (including the skin and bones) to the pot, and add enough water to cover. After water begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer with cover slightly ajar for 2-3 hours, or until chicken is completely cooked and the meat is coming off of the bone. 
  3. With a strainer over a large bowl or large separate pot (I've used a large Dutch oven), pour the prepared broth and chicken out of the stock pot. (NOTE: Do this slowly, so that the chicken comes out last) 
  4. Turn stove back to medium heat, and return strained broth to the stock pot. 
  5. While allowing the chicken to cool slightly, chop the carrots and celery and add them to the broth. 
  6. Skin and debone the chicken. Then return the meat to the stock pot. 
  7. Add rice, and allow the pot to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste, and/or a chicken bouillon to enhance the flavor. 
  9. Top with chopped parsley before serving. 

NOTES: 

  • Allowing the chicken to cool slightly before deboning eases the process, and makes the fatty tissue and bones much easier to remove — it will also keeps you from scorching your fingertips. 
  • This soup freezes well, and makes great leftovers. My mom always said the second bowl was the best. 
  • If you're looking for a little extra kick, throw in some hot sauce for added spice. Trust me, it's delicious. 

When the South's Snowmageddon Meets the Egyptian Revolution

My Twitter feed is an eclectic hodgepodge. There will be 140 characters worth of organizing ideas from Real Simple, followed by a thoughtful question about women and faith from Rachel Held Evans, and then there's the Arabic-language update with news from Cairo. In a way, it's evidence of the many directions my life has taken in the last four years. And as Twitter reminded me a few days ago, I just passed my four-year "Twitterversary." 

Stephen while stuck on an icy Hwy 280 for four hours. 

Stephen while stuck on an icy Hwy 280 for four hours. 

Late-January is full of odd anniversaries for me. Yesterday, Facebook was abuzz with recollections of the South's Snowmageddon from a year before. People across the region were hit by a surprise snow and ice storm that left them either stuck in their cars or abandoning them and walking home. Kids and teachers couldn't leave school. I had the good fortune of only making a four-hour round trip drive to Tuscaloosa, while Stephen's casual drive to Home Depot turned into a 12-hour trek across town that included walking six-miles in the ice. I have not gone a week in the last year without hearing someone regaling their experiences during that storm, or relating my own. 

But something strange occurred to me during those frozen, snowed-in days last January. They marked three years since I was also stuck at home, but this time for a completely different reason.  On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian Revolution started, and like so many other millions, I was there.  With tight curfews and no police force, people generally stayed close to home. That's when I joined Twitter. It had become the most effective way to track the news—at least until Mubarak turned off the internet. Three years later, I found myself again feeling simultaneously cut off and exhilarated. Yet in January 2014 I ultimately felt safe and secure, just a little bit cold. In Cairo, things were much less certain, and while I did not feel I was directly in harm's way, our circumstances were defined by a lack of security.

Me after evacuating Cairo in early February, and making my way to Cambridge, UK A cozy seat at a warm pub with a good friend was exactly what I needed. Photo by Galina Mardilovich. 

Me after evacuating Cairo in early February, and making my way to Cambridge, UK A cozy seat at a warm pub with a good friend was exactly what I needed. Photo by Galina Mardilovich. 

As people have continued to recount their Snowmageddon experiences for the last year, there has been a cathartic quality to all of it. People were traumatized. And trauma leaves a deep psychological mark. It has to be expunged, and for me and the Southerners around me that meant talking about it. 

It would have been awkward to bring up in those conversations how privileged we are to be able to talk and laugh about our experiences. To be able to recount our trauma and breath a large sigh of relief with smiles on our face at the end.

Not everyone gets to recall their trauma that way. Not everyone gets such quick relief. For those most hopeful in Tahrir Square in 2011, their dreams of democracy and real change have been largely dissolved by a new military dictatorship. 

It was 50˚F in Birmingham one year after Snowmageddon. It was literally a warm balm on the storm's temporary wounds. At the same time, Egypt's revolution is being recalled with images of the new leadership's most recent victims—Shaima Al-Shabbagh brutal shooting in the midst of a peaceful anniversary protest and the death of at least 18 other people.

There is no need to diminish the trauma of last year's storm. But there's a perspective we could take in recalling our own discomfort—one where we realize that we found quick relief where so many others are still waiting. 

Styling & Visual Storytelling

I love words. I love their ability to conjure up an image, and their simultaneous frailty when it comes to exactly describing something. There just might be the perfect words out there, and finding them is so illusive. It's that ongoing search—the game of it—that makes writing so appealing

Yet I would be remiss, foolish not to admit that a good image has a descriptive power separate from that of words. Not better or worse, but certainly important. The strongest messages come from thoughtfully pairing well crafted words and imagery.

Apple-strawberry hand pies and mini chai-cream pies from Stephen's and my first food shoot. Perhaps its my love of gluten-free desserts, but I continue to find that baked goods have a photogenic quality that makes them easier to style.

Apple-strawberry hand pies and mini chai-cream pies from Stephen's and my first food shoot. Perhaps its my love of gluten-free desserts, but I continue to find that baked goods have a photogenic quality that makes them easier to style.

I have always had an appreciation for strong and beautiful images. But I did not understand that the people behind those pictures, specifically the stylists, have to have a strong sense of story if they are going to construct something meaningful. 

I started styling when I thought that I might create a gluten-free food blog. I had recipes I enjoyed making, and wanted to share them. I also had the good fortune of being married to a photographer with a growing interest in food photography. The first time we put together a food shoot, I made a series of pies. We created two shots that were moody, but still gave a clear sense of what was in the pies. They remain some of my favorites—I think because the shots came together so naturally.

That first shoot was a bit of a tease. A few months later, when I got my first styling freelance assignment for fresh style, I was less sure of myself. Without constructing the recipe and executing it, I didn't have a clear sense of what the picture needed to communicate and how I was supposed to contribute to it. It was only with the help of my editor that I began to fully grasp that without using any words, my job as the stylist was also to tell a story. 

One of our first collaborations for fresh style, where Stephen took the photos and I was charged with writing and styling. We were there in September, and had to make this Ohio greenhouse look like it was the middle of spring. 

One of our first collaborations for fresh style, where Stephen took the photos and I was charged with writing and styling. We were there in September, and had to make this Ohio greenhouse look like it was the middle of spring. 

A lot goes into that kind of visual storytelling. If it's a home, where does the throw blanket go so that it looks natural, but not sloppy? If it's food, how do you place the utensil so that the fare looks all the more enticing? Simple decisions can bring these inanimate objects to life, or make them look awkward and out of place. So often it boils down to instinct, taste, and a good eye.

Some people mistakenly think that styling means faking something or creating impossible standards. Yet a good stylist knows that the best stories are approachable and subtly inspiring, but are never overpowering or didactic. 

The best styling you never notice. It's like a well-constructed sentence, so naturally crafted that the reader doesn't imagine a writer behind it, but merely absorbs it as something of his own. Likewise, the stylist is often the unsung hero of the photo shoot. She has researched the right props, and found the ideal location. She understands all of the visual pieces that need to come together to convey the narrative. Then she collaborates with the photographer to bring it all together. 

While I now spend most of my time writing, and this blog instead focuses more broadly on creative processes (which sadly only sometimes involves gluten free desserts), I still get to keep a toe in the food and prop styling world each month, when Stephen and I shoot the monthly manual for The Mantry Company

Mantry is a masculine food-of-the-month club, that offers six well-curated artisan food items to their customers each month. In addition to the food, they send along a manual with simple recipes. They are fun stories to tell—Thanksgiving leftovers turned into shepherd's pie, a bourbon breakfast, even a cocktail party how-to that was featured in GQ.

Yummy shrimp skewers from Mantry's grilling manual. 

Yummy shrimp skewers from Mantry's grilling manual. 

These shoots are a fresh reminder of the central importance of good, thoughtful styling. They help sharpen the visual side of my creativity, and allow me to leave the words behind for a minute and consider a different narrative form. 

They are also a humbling reminder that the next time I see a beautiful picture I love, to not only appreciate the photographer, but also look for the stylist behind the story. 

Analog and Digital: CineStill Film and the Brothers Wright

When I sit down to write, I generally need a pencil and a few scratch pieces of paper. I might do 90 percent of my composing on the computer, but those analog tools remain essential to my writing process. Sometimes the words start to flow, but my thoughts somehow get jumbled on the way from my brain and the keyboard. I need my thoughts to slow down, so I stop typing, pick up my pencil and jot down the sentence I'm trying to articulate. The change in rhythm helps me clarify my thoughts. The words start to untangle themselves on the page, and I’m soon back to typing. 

People are now discovering that all important things in reality have an analog beginning and end, and the digital world is just one step between one analog experience and another.
— Brian Wright

When it comes to using a word processor or writing by hand, it's not an either/or choice. I need both. The two methods support and reinforce each other, and hopefully make me a better writer in the end. What I've recently come to see—thanks to some incredibly thoughtful and creative friends—is that this cyclical relationship between the analog and the digital is not just about writing, it's really a way of understanding the many creative possibilities that surround us. 

For fresh style, we ran a web series on the modern craft of film photography, and talked to photographers Brandon and Brian Wright (jointly known as the Brothers Wright) about their creation of CineStill Film. Their work makes motion picture film available to still photographers—something unheard of in the past. Now, they’re in the midst of a Kickstarter to expand production to a medium format film. In the freshstylemag.com story, I explored what their invention means to film photographers. I think their work sends a bigger message, though, to anyone interested in innovation and creativity, regardless of whether or not you pick up a camera or can tell a light meter from a flash card. 

Portraits of the Brothers Wright by Stephen DeVries. (Left: Brandon Wright; Right: Brandon - left, Brian - right).

Portraits of the Brothers Wright by Stephen DeVries. (Left: Brandon Wright; Right: Brandon - left, Brian - right).

I asked Brandon and Brian about their take on the relationship between digital and analog. Knowing that they're dedicated film photographers, I wanted them to actually explain why film still matters in our digital age. Brian responded that he believes we’re entering a “post-digital” Renaissance. 

“Digital is no longer a new and shiny ‘revolution,’” he continued. “People are now discovering that all important things in reality have an analog beginning and end, and the digital world is just one step between one analog experience to another.” 

Left: Brandon (left) and Brian (right); Right: Brian Wright. 

Left: Brandon (left) and Brian (right); Right: Brian Wright. 

Brian’s point helps explain why there’s a growing market for vinyl records and vintage typewriters; why there’s a return to handicrafts, and you can attend entire fairs dedicated to carefully spun fibers. People are discovering their most meaningful present by returning to older forms of creativity that have them using the same methods generations earlier employed. It’s not about finding an altogether new creation, but a more mature understanding that what we do now confidently stands on the shoulders of those who came before us.

The Brothers Wright are embracing the modern growth of analog with more dedication than most. Supporting their expansion of CineStill is an opportunity to participate in a new innovation that is as deeply connected to the past as it is relevant to the present. I can’t invent a new pencil and paper that will help me develop as a writer. For me, that’s all the more reason to help support the development of an important new tool for other creatives.

A conversation about art and life with photographer Lara Porzak

Lara Porzak at her studio near Venice Beach, California. Photo by Stephen DeVries, courtesy of fresh style magazine.

Lara Porzak at her studio near Venice Beach, California. Photo by Stephen DeVries, courtesy of fresh style magazine.

For the most recent issue of fresh style, I wrote the artist profile of Lara Porzak, a fine art film photographer based in Los Angeles. Her ability to capture feeling and emotion on black and white film has gained her the attention of many LA celebrities, several of whom have had her shoot their weddings. That said, she does not name drop—although after a few enjoyable phone conversations I did hear some entertaining stories. The story on Lara, though, really focused on her fine art photography and how her career has developed.

During one of our conversations she shared a succinct statement about her life as an artist that has stayed with me: “My life is my art that’s made.” 

Every time I went over my notes, I paused at the quotation. I underlined it, and even put a star next to it. But it never found a place in the story. Rather than weave it into a larger narrative, the sentence deserved more careful attention, so I turn to it here. 

My life is my art that’s made.
— Lara Porzak

What does it mean to have your creativity and the everyday routines of your life be so interconnected that you cannot separate the two? How do you produce something and then stand back from it and say, yes, that’s me? How do you find the confidence to take yourself that seriously as an artist? Or as a musician, writer, or baker—whatever your particular expressive mode might be?

Lara shared a story about how she came to see herself as an artist. Nearly 20 years ago, she attended a workshop given by Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer well known for her ability to capture deep elements of humanism. (Her most famous images include photographs of circus performers in Mexico and India, captured in her book Man and Beast.) Lara recalled that all of the other attendees showed up with expensive Leicas—the signature camera of a professional documentarian. Lara, however, brought her plastic Holga, known for its vignettes, plastic lens, and square images. That willingness to be herself apparently impressed Mark, and she asked Lara to assist her on a shoot at a nearby Mexican circus. 

So Lara went to the circus, Holga in hand. While there, she snapped a shot of a young boy wearing a plastic animal mask as he stood in front of a tent. It has since become one of Lara’s signature images, and led to entire photo series on people wearing animal masks. The photo also had a deep personal meaning for Lara. She told me that it proved to her that she could be a fine art photographer—that she had what it took. While she has since had that conviction confirmed by a significant number of outside voices, believing it for herself was such an essential part of seeing herself as an artist. How would she be capable of understanding her life and her artwork as in sync, if she didn’t operate with the conviction that she is an artist, regardless of outside recognition? 

There’s a bravery to pouring yourself into a creative endeavor and then putting it out there for others to see. I think of a shy and cautious musician whose love for his work forces him onto the stage—his art transforming him into a performer and entertainer. That process can be so intimidating that some people never even give their creative dreams a chance. But what a reward to be able to stand back and say that your life and your art are one and the same. 

Hearing Lara’s story encouraged me to take myself all that more seriously as a writer—to see myself as a writer, and to produce work that I truly believe in. For me, that process hasn’t come without the encouragement of those around me. (Stephen’s matter-of-fact statements to friends and colleagues that “my wife is a writer,” has meant more to my professional development than he probably knows.) I share Lara’s story here in hopes that it prods others to consider their own passions more earnestly, so that they truly become a part of who they are.

Read her statement a few more times, and let it really resonate.

Writing about Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free Magazine

Opening spread of the story on Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free. Photos by Stephen DeVries. 

Opening spread of the story on Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free. Photos by Stephen DeVries

Whether I care to admit or not, celiac disease has come to define much of my travel experience. For the most part, this has translated into an unexpected blessing. I seek out local spots that can accommodate my diet, often finding unexpected treasures on the road. There's also a certain joy to finding an unexpected gluten-free treat in a new place. On our trip to Boston this spring, for instance, as we trekked along the Freedom Trail, we happened to come across a bakery with gluten-free cupcakes and cookies. After watching the rest of my family partake in some delicious-looking Dunkin’ Donuts earlier that day, it was a special kind of joy to find my own baked treat without having to plan for it. 

Even with these happy discoveries and little surprises, arriving in a new place as a gluten-free traveler also poses a certain number of challenges that can create some serious anxiety. While I have increasingly grown accustomed to asking for special service, even after living gluten free for 12 years I'm still not altogether comfortable with it. I have watched my own moments of uncertainty and shyness cause anxiety not only for me, but also for my fellow travelers. Add a few growling stomachs to the mix and you have a recipe for a travel disaster. Those less optimistic experiences made writing a travel story about Birmingham for Simply Gluten Free magazine a special privilege. By discussing my favorite places to go in the place I call home, hopefully I gave readers the inside track on where to satiate their hunger and enjoy the city at the same time. 

In my view, the best parts of Birmingham aren't located near the chain restaurants and their alluring familiarity. It's a city that is best experienced and understood through a stroll downtown, where one can take in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the parks, and grab a bite to eat while appreciating the depth of history that took place on the sidewalks you're treading. While the city's growing food scene provides a wide range of culinary options for anyone to enjoy, since most of the fare is local, it can be intimidating if you haven't done your homework. Writing the story meant something special to me for that reason. It allowed me to talk about the city that I love and the wonderful places to eat, proving that gluten-free diners can enjoy the comforts of the South even if they can't eat traditional biscuits and gravy. 

I've posted my complete story for Simply Gluten Free with the rest of my writing. For those of you interested in a my favorite places to grab some gluten-free grub in Birmingham, below I’ve listed the restaurants and cafes I like best according to their neighborhood. 

(* indicates places with a specific gluten-free menu)

Downtown: 
El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar - My favorite Mexican restaurant in town. They can prepare most menu items gluten free. I’m an especially big fan of their tacos, which you can order with homemade corn tortillas. Their queso, with its blend of goat cheese and tequila, is also not be missed.

Paramount - A great spot for a fresh take on American bar food classics. They have a delicious chili, and a Frito pie, both of which pair perfectly with an Original Sin Cider and some good company. Make sure to check out the back of the restaurant, where they have old-school arcade games and ski-ball. 

Urban Standard - Among the best coffee shops in town, they also serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their staff are friendly and know how to accommodate gluten-free diners. I would especially recommend their chicken salad on greens.

Five Points and the Highlands:
Highlands Bar & Grill - With a James Beard Foundation Award winning chef, this fine dining experience combines French culinary tradition with locally farmed ingredients. While they don’t have a specifically gluten-free menu, their knowledgable staff will carefully walk you through the menu and ensure you have a gluten-free experience.

Jim ’n’ Nicks Bar-B-Q - One of our favorite southern BBQ joints, their meats, sauces, and a good handful of their sides are all gluten-free. Ask a waiter, and they’ll make sure you don’t veer into glutenous territory. 

Rojo* - This is one of our favorite spots when going out for lunch or dinner. Rojo combines American and Mexican food for a menu that can please just about anyone. They have a gluten free menu (look on the shelf below the regular menus), and if you have celiac, let them know and they’ll change gloves and do everything they can to avoid cross-contamination. 

Forest Park and Avondale:
Silvertron Cafe - This Birmingham staple has been delighting locals for more than 25 years. On a recent visit, I asked the waiter about gluten-free options and he had the owner Marco Morosini come to our table and walk me through the menu. Marco continued to check in on us throughout the evening, to ensure that the meal went well. It did, and it’s on its way to a dining-out go-to for us. 

Homewood: 
Urban Cookhouse - This is a lunch favorite of mine. Most of their menu items can be prepared gluten-free. Their grilled chicken is among my favorites. They also make a delicious lemonade. They have two additional locations—one in Crestline Village and another in the Summit—making their locally sourced food easily accessible wherever you happen to be.

O’Carr’s - Best known for its chicken salad, O’Carr’s prides themselves in creating delicious and beautiful food that is as colorful as it is tasty. If you’re looking for a gluten-free caterer, O’Carr’s would be my first stop. Owner Cameron Carr pulled out all the stops to make sure that we had a completely gluten-free menu at our wedding in 2012. 

Crestline Village:
Church Street Coffee & Books* - Their cozy atmosphere, well-curated book collection, and delicious coffee are enough to make Church Street my favorite coffee shop in Birmingham. Add in the range of gluten-free treats in their pastry case, and the place can't be beat. (If you're with gluten-eating friends, make sure they indulge in a "Break-up Cookie." I have it on my husband's expert authority that they're the best choclate-chip cookies in town). 

Mountain Brook: 
Over Easy - A great breakfast and brunch spot. Their omelets are my favorite. You don’t even have to skip the toast here! They have gluten-free bread and make sure it’s toasted without fear of contamination. 

Ollie Irene* - My favorite spot for fine dinning in Birmingham. Ollie Irene clearly marks their gluten-free options on their menu, and offer several options from appetizers, through the mains and on to desserts. Their seafood is among the best in town. 

Shelby County: 
Funky Muffin Bakery* - Birmingham’s 100% gluten-free bakery, the Funky Muffin creates just about any baked good you can think off. Their donuts and cinnamon muffins are especially good. They also do custom cakes and other orders, making them ideal for a gluten-free celebration. It is definitely worth the trip south of town to check them out. 

New Job, New Blog and Learning to Define Success

About two months ago I started a new job as the assistant editor of fresh style magazine. As a creative lifestyle magazine, it that has me investing in a side of my talents I never thought had professional potential. I spend most of my days writing and managing our website, and about once a week I head home to create a new handmade project or test a recipe. During my second week on the job, I even created my own recipe for Gluten-Free Brazilian Carrot Cake Cupcakes. What amazes me most is that on a daily basis, I am now working on the kinds of things most people try to fit into their spare time as a hobby. 

The move to this job, though, even the willingness to consider a 9-to-5 position in an office was a rather intense process. Because I want this blog to be about processes and how things come into being, I thought it would be a good place to reflect on how this job became something new and exciting for me. It has caused me to question how I define success, and what it takes to find work that you love. 

Seven Years in the Making

When I started college, I wanted to be a writer. Since at least middle school, that was my dream, and by 18 years old, I imagined a career in journalism where I would publish fiction on the side. The entire reason I started studying history was because during an experiential learning course at C-SPAN's headquarters in DC, the cable news channel's founder Brian Lamb told me that if I wanted to be a journalist, I needed to know my history. After my first history class, I was hooked and eventually decided to forego journalism for a career in academia instead. I remember thinking that with the combination of research, writing, and teaching, being a professor was my actual ideal job. After all, I would still be writing, even if I wasn’t a “writer” per se. It seemed like a way to write without the risks and potential rejection of pursuing writing full time. 

I didn't immediately jump into graduate school, though. Following some sage advice from my advisor in the history department, I waited and got a full-time job instead. I spent two years working in the PR and marketing office at the University of Denver, my alma mater. I had been a work study and intern in the office throughout undergrad, so it was a natural transition. While it wasn't bad work, it didn't hold my attention in a way that made me want to stay long term. After about a six months, I knew I wanted to return to school and eventually join the ranks of academia.

More than six years of graduate school in the history PhD program at Rutgers University ensued. Looking back, I enjoyed probably 90% of my experience as graduate student. I loved discussing ideas and thinking through the complex ways that change takes place. I felt at home within those hallowed hall of higher learning, and wanted to stay there. Not that the experience was without its points of frustration. In particular, the apparent lack of substantial connection to the broader public was difficult for me to understand. Especially the idea of working for years on a research project that few people would read or find interesting made me wonder if there might be some other track, or a way that I might still make a bigger impact while remaining happily within the security of a tenured job. 

My real problems in academia came at the end of grad school, when I confronted the dire inequalities of academic employment—something for which I had little real preparation. There have been numerous blog posts, online and print newspaper articles, and other studies on the problems that plague the job market in higher education. I will not rehash them here. Suffice to say, despite my very best efforts (which included learning and doing research in Arabic) I became one of the hardworking, diligent and committed PhDs unable to find work beyond adjunct teaching. As the story goes, there were elements of my personal life that arguably got in the way of my academic success. My husband Stephen has a successful photography business here in Birmingham, so moving from one short term position to another as a Visiting Professor meant we would have to live apart—an option we ruled out at the start of our marriage. I also needed a job in a relatively large city, so that Stephen could still find work. Those priorities made finding a job all the harder, so I started adjunct teaching, first at Birmingham-Southern College and then at the University of Alabama. While I loved both schools, the students there, and teaching in general, after a year of working full-time hours for less than part-time pay, I simply couldn't face another semester of scrambling for classes, pouring my energy into lecture writing, and grading on the weekends, only to see the hope of a "real job" continue to feel further and further away. Perhaps it’s that sense of artifice—that working as an adjunct isn’t substantial, significant or real—that makes it such a humiliating line of work. That and the dismal pay. 

Defining success

Considering a job outside of academia, though, required a difficult shift in my mentality. Surprisingly, I found my training in history proved especially valuable on a personal level when it came to deciding to apply for a different kind of job. For my dissertation, I studied people who descended from the survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, who escaped massacre at the hands of the Ottomans on the Greeks Isle of Chios, and who fled Nazi persecution—this mixture of diasporic peoples and their progeny all eventually ended up in an especially multinational neighborhood south of Cairo, called Ma'adi. While their stories taught me about the global flows of economic, social, and cultural influences, they also taught me about resilience. 

Most of the people I studied suffered incredible losses—some personal, some financial, others a combination of tragedies—yet they adapted and adjusted their lives, capitalizing on the unexpected opportunities that opened up amid their struggles. Ultimately, many of them turned the experience of survival into a method for making a new life. Learning about their willingness to adjust has since proved to be the most rewarding element to come from my years of research and writing. Their stories inspired me to consider looking beyond the narrow goal of a tenure-track job. Just acknowledging that it was narrow provided a sense of freedom. Rather than lose hope and grow frustrated and angry, why not look at the other things I’m capable of doing and find other options? Why not define my success, rather than letting my supposed career track define it for me? 

PhD programs groom you for tenure-track work. Thankfully, more professional associations, including the American Historical Association, are now encouraging graduate programs and students to broaden their horizons and see graduate work as the accrual of a useful set of skills rather than one particular kind of job. Most PhD students, however, go to grad school after already accepting that only attaining a tenure-track job will mean they have achieved success. Such stringency can become a strange religion, where you worship ideas, feed off the the competition over claiming them, and find salvation in the security of tenure. It was heartbreaking to have my seeming redemption withheld after so much work. Realizing there was more to me than that one line of work, however, transformed how I saw the opportunities around me. 

New old dream

Now that I'm writing all the time, researching, and doing hands-on problem solving everyday, I find I’m using the skills I acquired in graduate school in a more hands-on way than I would have were I prepping to teach yet another semester of Western Civ. I'm also doing work more akin to what I had always wanted to do when I started college. I am a writer, and I am hopeful about the doors that will continue to open up while I pursue a childhood dream I once dismissed as impractical. Who would have thought a move to Birmingham, AL would open up these doors in the first place? 

A number of unexpected benefits came from switching lines of work. My dissertation research has proved personally beneficial and so much more than a project meant only for the ivory tower. Beyond that, I now appreciate what it means to set my own goals and priorities, rather than having a particular institution or career path set them for me. Each new endeavor requires a certain amount of sacrifice and adaptability. Now I see the importance of defining why I value a goal and choosing it deliberately, rather than hanging my hopes on a system that I hope might choose me. 

Travel Experience: The Intimacy of the Family Vacation

Maybe we had reached step 200 when a middle-aged woman came waddling down the narrow staircase with her pre-teen daughter and kindly told us, "It's 294 steps." I kept repeating the number in my head. We were almost, kind of, almost there. My heart raced a little faster, breaths came a little harder with each ascending step. We were hoofing our way to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument — our penultimate stop along Boston's Freedom Trail. With my sister and brother-in-law ahead of us, Stephen and I continued our progress, not wanting to miss the possibility of an outstanding view of the city. 

The Bunker Hill Monument during the Bunker Hill Day celebrations in Charlestown, Mass. sometime between 1890 and 1901. Image from Wikimedia.

The Bunker Hill Monument during the Bunker Hill Day celebrations in Charlestown, Mass. sometime between 1890 and 1901. Image from Wikimedia.

For those less familiar, the Freedom Trail literally makes a 2.5-mile red line through the historic sites of Beantown's colonial past. Sometimes it's painted on asphalt, sometimes it's a narrow, brick-lined path, but we followed almost every step of it, starting in the Common, maneuvering past the State House and through at least two historic burial grounds. We got lunch at Quincy Market behind Faneuil Hall, toured Paul Revere's house, and saw the church where the lanterns hung declaring the British arrival by sea. After the hike up the obelisk at Bunker Hill, things wrapped up with an exploration of the USS Constitution. While two and a half miles doesn't sound especially long, this footpath also marked the final day of our family vacation in Boston. On this last day before we drove down to New Jersey for my graduation from Rutgers there was a sense that we needed to make the most of every possible moment and leave no stone unturned, even if it was raining most of the time. 

In addition to my parents and sister, this trip marked the first family vacation to include two new family members — my brother-in-law Joel and husband Stephen. (Unfortunately, my brother had to be in Colorado for a wedding, so we were down a man.) When I was thinking about our time in Boston as a travel experience, though, it occurred to me that family vacations and family-oriented travel don't often make it into our reflections on meaningful travel. Those narratives are usually occupied by the individual adventurer who wanders into some uncertain yet exciting terrain. The family politics of where to go for lunch, how to get there, and who gets to set the temperature on the thermostat — not to mention the possibility of childhood rivalries rearing their ugly heads — don't create a sense of wanderlust for the reader or the writer. We might love to laugh at Clark Griswold and his travel disasters behind the wheel of the family station wagon, but not too many would pay to ride along. For most of us, though, these are our travel stories. Saving for that holiday trip to see grandparents, making sure we have a little emergency fund stashed away in case a sibling's baby comes early or there's a complication with a loved one's surgery — these are the real, everyday, unglamorous travel experiences that comprise so many lives. 

While family travel moments don't always have the flash and polish that we see on glossy magazine pages, they carry that basic element that makes travel meaningful in all its varied forms. Travel breaks our routines, forces us to see the world in a new way, makes us reconsider how we understand home and what we love about it. If we're honest with ourselves, spending time with family can have the same effect. Traveling with family merges two boundary-breaking experiences — creating a corporate experience that hopefully draws us closer together because we've tasted the same new foods, seen the same sites, laughed about them, and maybe whined a little too. While doing all that, we were in the company of the people who know the ins and outs of some of our deepest personal moments. The family vacation could be among our most intimate shared life experiences.

After completing our ascent at Bunker Hill, more than the view, I remember the inescapable soreness we each felt in our legs for several days afterward. As Joel put it, there was a "ball of pain" encased in each calf. Maybe our shared build up of lactic acid doesn't make for an ideal travel story, but it's an important family story. One where a few years from now we'll remember and laugh about how painful it was to walk down even a few steps the next day, and the day after that. Those of us who love to travel get hooked on how the experience of a new place adds another facet to our sense of being human. Just as travel makes the person, the vacation — for better or worse — helps make the family. We didn't each see the Freedom Trail in the same way. But trek through Boston for the better part of day, make it rainy, a little cold and physically taxing, and you have six people who emerge with a deeper sense of who they are as a single entity, who we are as a family. 

Barcelona days in Simply Gluten-Free Magazine

Last summer Stephen and I made our way through Africa and into southern Europe. I posted before about some of our experiences after landing in Kigali and making our way through the twists and turns of Rwanda's mountains to Goma, DR Congo. That was just the beginning of our three-week venture, as we went from the Congo to Kenya, and then to Italy. We ended the trip on a high note, especially where food and friends were concerned, and spent a few days in Barcelona, Spain. 

We wandered through the city, with all of its layers of medieval and modern influences, escorted by our friends Kat and Alex (who thankfully speaks Spanish and Catalan). The four of us sampled an array of seafood, took in the architectural stylings of Gaudí, and took a train ride into the mountains to tour the monastery at Montserrat. The trip also paved the way for a national travel story. This month, you can read about our Barcelona experience in Simply Gluten-Free Magazine. While the story emphasizes those elements of our trip that catered to gluten-free dining (something quite easily managed in Spain), it also talks about the variety of attractions that draw so many travelers to the city. 

Now we're in the midst of a new three-week journey from New England and through the Mid-Atlantic. It seems like the perfect time to pause and reflect on the places we've journeyed to in the past year. 

Here's a sampling of our tear sheets. Photos by Stephen DeVries.

Here's a sampling of our tear sheets. Photos by Stephen DeVries.

Crossing historical paths with Tom Askwith in Kenya

As a historian, you hope for that moment when your path through the archives will intersect with your subject in some meaningful way. You want to find a place, an experience, a sense of understanding that helps bring the past more fully to life. When those connections to the past catch us off guard, when they are less expected, less sought after, however, they should give us pause. Questions regarding how a particular place came into being and what circumstances allowed it to take that form have drawn me back to our time in Africa last summer. 

After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by Stephen DeVries.

After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by Stephen DeVries.

I recently read Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Britain's Empire in Kenyawhich relates the extremely violent behavior of the British in Kenya, particularly the white settlers, as their position of dominance in the country declined following World War II. I traveled to Kenya for the first time last August. It is my husband's favorite destination, and we made a point of going there together soon after we were married. When we arrived in Nairobi, Stephen's friends arranged for us to stay in the United Kenya Club — and here is where my path intersected with the events that Elkins describes. 

The United Kenya Club was founded by Tom Askwith, who established the social club complete with a library, hotel, restaurant, and bar in hopes of creating Anglo-Kenyan partnerships that crossed racial boundaries. Askwith established the club in 1948 and served as its first president. His vision for interracial partnership, however, failed to abate the violence perpetrated against the Kikuyu of Kenya's Central Province. Worse still, his belief that detention camps might be used for the re-education of the imprisoned and tortured Kikuyu was deployed by the government as a public relations front for their brutal tactics. Why were these supposed rebels being detained in prison camps without any formal charge? Well, because they had to be trained in how to be properly civilized, and freed of their "savage" ways — or so the logic went. While Askwith did not have a direct hand in the violence, the camps remained sites of ongoing persecution while the government paid lip service to Askwith's hopes a more peaceful, socially cohesive future. 

When I read Askwith's name in Britain's Gulag something came full circle for me. The United Kenya Club remains a reserve for today's political elite in Kenya. While it was a hospitable and comfortable place to stay, something about it also felt dated or perhaps out place to me. When I first saw Askwith's name at the top of its list of presidents last August, I knew it had colonial roots, but I didn't understand what they might be. Even after learning more about Askwith's career in Kenya, the tension didn't exactly resolve. Here was a man who did not directly participate in the torture of the Kikuyu, yet he knew about it and didn't mount any significant opposition. Perhaps he hoped that it was a means to an end in achieving his vision for interracial harmony. Now his club remains, but is that because of or in spite of him? 

Retrospectively, the United Kenya Club gained the kind of meaning I might have searched for in the archives, yet on different terms. I was a tourist in Kenya, privileged to get to stay in this club because of my husband's friendships. What does it mean that I could access this place in 2013, as an American tourist married to someone who has done extensive nonprofit work in the country? What does it mean that the club remains the reserve of an elite, although now one predominantly African? And what of that founding message of interracial harmony, which lost its urgency as most of the white settlers in Kenya left the country decades ago, often making homes in South Africa? I don't have ready answers to these questions. Perhaps the most significant point is the ongoing existence and use of this building in profoundly altered circumstances. Does it memorialize Askwith as an awkward testimony to his own incomplete vision for breaking down social barriers? Did in succeed in spite of the paternalism of his vision? 

It is not necessarily profound that my feet crossed paths with Askwith some 50 or 60 years removed. Everyday in Birmingham I walk the same sidewalks as the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. I do not pretend to access the experiences of the past through these common paths. Yet those former footprints shaped the places we inhabit today in uneven, complex, and sometimes confusing ways. Can we really understand the places we inhabit today if we don’t know how they came into being?

Family Recipes, Part 1: Easter traditions and reasons to chart your own course

When it comes to holiday traditions, Easter can be confusing. For many Christians the celebration of Christ’s resurrection stands at the heights of the sacred calendar. Yet most of traditional practices — including the name of the holiday — have pagan roots. Where did the word Easter and its bunny come from? Well, that would be a reference to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility whose sign was a rabbit.

If you’re a Protestant, you have even less traditional ground to stand on, because following the Reformation, Easter celebrations were rejected as too papal. It was Catholics who established the tenets of the Christian Easter feast. Protestants didn’t come back to the fold, so to speak, until the late-nineteenth century. By that time, they also had the benefit of enjoying candy Easter eggs (Cadbury introduced the first chocolate egg in 1875), jelly beans, and Easter baskets stuffed with treats.* 

While the Easter table might lack the kind of nostalgic grounding in tradition that one experiences at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I find this freeing. For us, Easter has become a time to create new holiday memories and traditions with our friends. Since it takes a two-hour drive or a four-hour flight to spend the holiday with family, I try to incorporate family by including some traditional family recipes on the menu. 

For this year, I’ve adopted the traditional Hungarian kiffel (something we usually eat at Christmas) to our celebration of the resurrection. The kiffel combines cream cheese pastry and a touch of jam for a mixture of savory and sweet that’s hard to resist. This also kicks off a series on traditional family recipes that I plan to continue sharing on the blog. I figure, what better way to explore the history of what we eat, than to delve into the foods I associate with my family history?

Whenever I eat a kiffel, I think of my dad sneaking a few each time he passed through the kitchen and my mom telling him to save some for the rest of us. It makes them all the more special to think about my grandma and great grandma making them before me. While our families will be celebrating Easter across the country, our little Alabama duo will think of them fondly and enjoy a cookie in their honor. It’s not a bunny or an egg — but who said those had all that much to do with celebrating the resurrection in the first place? 


Photos by Stephen DeVries. 

Photos by Stephen DeVries

Great-Grandma Yahraus’s Kiffel Recipe (gluten free)

Note: I adapted the recipe below to my gluten free needs. For those making the cookie with wheat flour, see my notes in parentheses.) 

Ingredients: 

  • 1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese (cold)
  • 1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter (cold) 
  • 2 1/4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour Blend (2 cups if using wheat flour)
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder (1/2 tsp. if using wheat flour) 
  • 1 rounded Tablespoon sour cream
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • Jam or other filling of your choice (I varied mine between orange marmalade, blackberry jelly, and chocolate chips)

Directions: 

  • Sift together flour and baking powder. 
  • Using a fork or pastry cutter, cut in cold butter and cream cheese. 
  • Working with your hands add in sour cream and egg yolk so that the dough forms a soft ball. Be careful not over mix the dough — if it has a marbled look, that’s okay. 
  • Divide into two balls, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour (can be refrigerated overnight). 
  • Preheat oven to 375ºF
  • Working one ball at a time, unwrap roll out on a sheet of parchment paper dusted with tapioca starch. Roll out dough until it is 1/8 inch thick.
  • Cut dough into 2” squares and place a 1/2 tsp. of filling in the center. Fold into triangles or cylinders. 
  • Bake for 10-13 min. (Mine were perfect at 12 min.) 
  • Sprinkle with powdered sugar. 

*My information on the history of Easter came from Cathy K. Kaufman’s “Easter” entry in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (1ed.), Andrew F. Smith, ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed online at http://www.oxfordreference.com.libdata.lib.ua.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195154375.001.0001/acref-9780195154375-e-0280?rskey=iQtsmi&result=7 on 18 Apr. 2014.

Flax, the Irish, and a gluten-free Linzer Torte

It sits perched in the health food aisle of the grocery store — bags of flax seed lined up among the organic granola, peanut butter, and other natural, specialty foods. I sprinkle a little of it on my breakfast yogurt nearly every morning. Some even use a combination of flax seed and water to replace eggs when baking. While flax has become a fixture in the modern market for green living, its journey into today’s diets was more laborious and nuanced than one might expect. 

Photo by Stephen DeVries.

Photo by Stephen DeVries.

The original production of flax focused on textiles rather than dietary consumption. Flax is the plant behind linen, and historically its value comes from its fibers, not its seeds. Cultivation of flax for linen was especially prominent in northern Europe, where people in France, Flanders, Germany, and Ireland began cultivating the crop as early as the Bronze Age (2300-500 BC in Europe) and the practice rose to prominence during the medieval period.

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, and Stephen and I planning a trip to Ireland for later this month, it seemed appropriate to give a few details on the Irish experience of flax production. For the Irish, linen became especially profitable by the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by which time the British government began investing in expanding linen production. While traveling in Ireland, Arthur Young, an Englishman, remarked, somewhat condescendingly, on the importance of linen to the Irish economy, commenting, “The only considerable manufacture in Ireland which carries in all its parts the appearance of industry is the linen, and it ought never to be forgotten that this is solely confined to the protestant parts of the kingdom...” Young continued that considering the French example, this was not to say that the Catholics were incapable of such production, but that the Irish Catholics of the south had yet to capitalize on linen in the same way as the northern Irish protestants. Apparently, even the history of flax and linen are riddled with the confessional divisions of Anglo-Irish, Protestant-Catholic rivalry that run throughout Irish history. 

Young was right in seeing the promise of commercialization in the linen market. By 1810 farmers had sewn 70,000 acres with flax, and that number more than doubled by the 1850s when flax grew on some 175,000 acres. But the mid-nineteenth century also saw blight to potato crops and the devastating Irish Potato Famine, which left a million people dead and saw another 1.5 million emigrate, mostly to the United States. While that traumatic and devastating loss is responsible for the growth of a robust Irish heritage in the U.S., it also marked the decline of the Irish linen industry. 

The flax seeds — a byproducts of linen production — not only became an eventual ingredient in health food, but the oil derived from pressing the seeds, known as linseed oil, is used in oil paints, varnishes, and linoleum. 

What does all of this have to do with the Linzer Torte, you might ask. Well not a whole lot, except that the Linzer Torte traditionally uses walnut flour — something that I am allergic to, so I thought I’d try an alternative. I combined almond flour and flax seed meal to arrive at a delicious and hearty crust for my torte. When I started thinking about what laid behind that creation, I decided to explore the history of flax in greater detail. 

Here’s the recipe for my Gluten-Free Linzer Torte: 
Ingredients: 

Pastry crust: 

  • 400 grams (4 cups) almond flour
  • 55 grams (1/2 cup) flax seed meal
  • 375 grams (3 cups)  All-purpose gluten free flour*
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground clove
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 1/2 sticks butter - cold, unsalted, and cubed. 
  • 330 grams (1 2/3 cup) granulated sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
  • Finely grated zest of one lemon

Filling: 

  • 1/4 cup fine, dry (gluten-free) breadcrumbs
  • 2 cups (16 oz) seedless raspberry jam (I used 14 oz. of raspberry jam and 2 oz of blackberry)

For finish: 

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp water
  • Optional: 1 cup slivered almonds. 

Directions: 

  • Preheat oven to 400ºF
  • Prepare selected pan by lining with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit, and buttering the paper
    • Note: You can make the torte as either a circle or a square. This recipe makes enough for two 9 inch round pans, two 8 inch square pans, or one 9x13 rectangular pan. Because I wanted to cut mine into square bars (as opposed to wedges) I opted for the single 9x13 pan. If you are making a circular torte, it is preferable to use a cake pan with a removable bottom. 
  • Stir together the almond flour, flax seed meal, and sugar. 
  • In a large bowl stir gluten-free flour, cinnamon, clove, and salt together until well blended.
  • With a fork or pastry blender, work cubes of butter into the almond and flax mixture until it as a course, crumbly texture. 
  • Stir in the sugar, almond, and flax seed mixture. 
  • In a small dish, beat together the egg, egg yolk, and lemon zest until combined, then stir into almond and flax crumbs. 
  • Gently kneed the dough to fully incorporate the egg mixture, and the dough forms into a ball. 
  • Divide dough in half if making one torte, or into quarters if making two. 
  • Place one portion into the bottom of the pan and use your fingers to press it evenly across the pan and about 1 1/2 inches up the side of the pan. It should be evenly distributed across the bottom of the pan, but does not need to be smooth. 
  • Bake the shell or shells for 12 min.
  • While the shell(s) bake, roll out the remaining dough between sheets of wax or parchment paper until it is 1/4 inch thickness, and one inch bigger than the pan. Then place it in the freezer to chill for approx. 20 min. 
  • Remove shell(s) from the oven and let cool slightly. 
  • Reduce baking temperature to 350ºF

Filling: 

  • I put dry, gluten-free bread in the food processor to create my bread crumbs until it was as fine as possible. 
  • Sprinkle 1/4 cup of finely ground breadcrumbs over the baked shell, or divide into 2 Tbsp allotments if making two tortes
  • Stir jam until it is soft, and spread it across the shell(s). 

Lattice: 

  • Remove dough from freezer and cut into 1/2 inch wide strips, cutting through the dough and waxed paper. Use the lift the waxed paper, and place the strip, dough side down, onto the filling. 
    • My dough was fairly stiff after coming out of the freezer, so I was able to handle it without cutting through the wax paper. 
  • Arrange strips on a diagonal about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch apart, layering them in a criss-cross patterns to make the lattice top. 
    • My dough was not pliable enough to weave into a traditional lattice, but layering them on the diagonal still created a nice, diamond-shaped effect. 
  • Use leftover pieces to fill in any gaps. 
  • Mix egg yolk with water and brush all of the lattice and border. Sprinkle with slivered almonds, if desired. 
  • Bake torte for 45 to 60 minutes. 
  • Remove from oven and place on rack. 

For best flavor leave the torte or tortes stand uncovered overnight before serving.

Note: I adapted my recipe from one posted last December on Smitten Kitchen. If you are looking for a traditional recipe that uses walnuts, I would recommend following her example. 

*Earlier this month I had the opportunity to share my experience of being diagnosed with celiac and going gluten free with fresh style magazine. I shared a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, and my go-to gluten-free flour blend on the magazine's blog, You can download a printable version of the recipe for the cookies and the flour blend here

Information on the history of flax and linen came from The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, and The Oxford Companion to Irish History. For those especially curious, you can read all of Arthur Young's eighteenth century observations about Ireland on Google Play

Travel writing and high heels in Rwanda and the DR Congo

Last fall I reviewed a collection of women’s travel writing in Egypt for the Journal of African History and it struck me afresh with the challenge of writing in an engaging and meaningful way about travel. When you travel to a place like Egypt, that has so much history, it can be easy to forget that it also has a modern existence. In the collection, I read narratives of women who expected to arrive in Alexandria and somehow access the experiences of Alexander the Great. There were trips along the Nile from Upper Egypt loaded with imagined pharaohs and their servants. While history is certainly engrained into the meaning of a place, our present day travels cannot expect to directly participate in some staid historical idea, out of sync with the location’s contemporary existence. History of a place — just like history of people — is best used when it informs our understanding but doesn’t fully define it. In turn, I have come to relish travel writing that opens up a sense of possibility rather than creating narrow, historically-derived blinders.

It would be hypocritical to leave my criticism there and not make my own attempt at the kind of travel writing I admire. To that end, I have decided to relate snippets of my own travel experiences in a way that might make a place appear in a new light. My goal is to focus on events that surprised me, caused me to ask important questions, or shed new light on the complexities of a location. When debating a topic for this first work in progress, I immediately recalled a woman I saw twice, but never talked to while in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last summer...

I am always impressed by women who look put together, organized, and professional while traveling. It is something I aspire to, but I’m not sure I ever quite achieve. I seem to have one bag too many, or my book in hand at the wrong moment. I am all the more impressed, then, when I see someone looking especially capable — as opposed to overwhelmed — while traveling to the developing world.  When Stephen and I de-boarded our plane in Kigali, Rwanda one July night, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a woman I saw mingling with us among the baggage. She was white, with wavy brown hair that hung somewhere between her chin and shoulders, and was a bit disheveled, as I imagine we all were. If I recall correctly, she was speaking on a cell phone to someone in French. What drew my attention most, though, were her shoes. As she searched for her luggage she wore spiked high heels that added at least four inches to her height. How did she comfortably get around the airport — any airport — in those shoes, especially with luggage in tow? What brought this woman to Rwanda? I felt of mixture of awe and confusion.

We found our bags, as did she, and moved on. That night Stephen and I stayed at a guest house in Kigali, and the next morning we made the three hour drive to Goma, DRC. We stared out the window for most of morning as the driver took us through the rolling hills of Rwanda. The road was smooth and freshly paved — creating a positive sense of Rwanda growth. The scene outside appeared like a bucolic paradise as mineral-rich red soil gave way to green pastures. 

Perhaps my positive impressions became all the more vivid because of the contrast between Rwanda and the Congo. Upon crossing the border the sense of possibility immediately faded. The eastern Congo has been devastated by war for 20 years. When we arrived fighting had just intensified as the United Nations began actively battling against the M-23 guerillas who had caused so much turmoil. We met our hosts at the border, and carefully made our way with all of Stephen’s camera gear into the Congo. A full explanation of the scene and our first ride through Goma will have to wait for another post... 

To gain entry into the DRC we had to present a number of documents at the immigration counter, and were immediately indebted to our host Katavo as he translated for us and helped us with our bags. As we stood there waiting, I turned around to take in the scene. I could hardly believe it when walking up behind me was the same woman from the night before. Still in her high heels, this time she carried a large paper shopping bag full of books among several other pieces of luggage. As she made her way up the stairs to the immigration desk, her paper bag split open and half a dozen books spilled onto the ground. She gave a frustrated laugh as she attempted to pull her things together. Immediately two Congolese men proceeded to help her. In a single moment she looked completely out of her element, and yet I also felt that perhaps she had a much stronger command and understanding of what was going on around her than I did. After all, how could she make it this far without knowing what was expected of her. Rather than appearing vulnerable, she seemed to know precisely what she had to do. I couldn’t decide if she presented something to aspire to, or to avoid. 

That was the last time I saw her. She made her way to the immigration desk, and we got our visas stamped and headed further into the city. The roads were cavernous compared to Rwanda, and the white woman in high heels faded from my concerns. How oddly trivial and strange that the simple detail of her footwear could make such a lasting impression. Perhaps because she at first appeared to embody every travel pitfall I tried to avoid, and yet she remained above it, undeterred, and oddly capable.