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?

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: 

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


  • 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. 


  • 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


  • 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). 


  • 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