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. 

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?