Spotlight on Science: Ashley Glenn

Ashley Glenn, Research Specialist, William L. Brown Center

For many people, holidays bring warm memories of a delicious meal shared with family or friends. Maybe it’s a Christmas feast or traditional Hanukkah foods. For Garden Scientist Ashley Glenn, the holidays mean Christmas cookies baked with heirloom recipes and time spent making and jarring gallons of homemade spaghetti sauce with family.

Food and Families

Food has always big focus for Glenn’s Sicilian-American family. Recipes for ravioli, cannoli, spedini, and other dishes have been passed down with pride for generations. From a young age, Glenn started practicing those family recipes.

With that heritage, it’s no surprise that when Glenn, Research Specialist at the William L. Brown Center at the Garden, first started doing botanical field work in other countries, she found herself fascinated by what people were eating. “The way people used food for different occasions, and the way food changes and the way you get a sense of place by what you’re eating has always been interesting to me,” she explains.

So, naturally, when it came time for Glenn to pick a topic for her PhD, she focused on food. She decided to study why people pick the plants that they do to grow and eat. It fit neatly into her role with the William L. Brown Center, which is dedicated to understanding the relationships between humans, plants, and their environment.

Of particular interest to Glenn is how much food traditions change over time and in new places. For instance, when she visited her family in Italy, she didn’t recognize any of the delicious dishes they served.

“That’s the American story. We have cuisine here that comes from somewhere else but is transformed by the way we live here.”

Ashley Glenn, Research Specialist, William L. Brown Center

It’s the story of St. Louis, too, which Glenn describes as a “food town” with immigrants from around the world adapting traditional recipes over generations. Glenn chose to look at St. Louis’ large Bosnian community for the local component of her study. Since many St. Louis Bosnians came here fairly recently, it’s easier to discern how food traditions change from generation to generation in a new country.

For the first phase of her study, Glenn is observing lifestyles and culinary habits of Bosnians in St. Louis and in Bosnia. She’s putting those findings into a series of publishable documents that will provide a baseline of data to help build a program. While that may sound like serious scientific study, much of it is simply cooking and sharing meals.

In sharing those meals in St. Louis, Glenn’s seen one traditional Bosnian recipe made 20 different ways. How it’s prepared can be affected by what town the people’s families came from in Bosnia, how their parents taught them to prepare the meal, and even what ingredients they happen to have on hand. Within families, people often don’t use written recipes and ingredients get measured with teacups and coffee mugs in the house. If those items aren’t handed down to someone in the family, the recipe can change

“By cooking with all these different people, I can really see how cuisines get formed and adapted.”

Ashley Glenn, Research Specialist at the William L. Brown Center

Glenn has made three trips to Bosnia so far, where she interviews people about food traditions and gets first-hand data by eating in restaurants and home. The trips also allow her to compare how ideas about food differ between Bosnians still living in Bosnia and those in St. Louis. For instance, in Bosnia most people believe food is healthy if it comes from a farm. In America, people are more likely to follow fad diets, like low-carb meals or avoiding fat. Quality of ingredients also varies for people still living in Bosnia—many of whom live and work on farms—and those in the more urban area of St. Louis.

City life, and working full-time jobs away from family farms, also means St. Louis Bosnians seldom are able to make time consuming dishes, like pastries and stews, which are part of Bosnian culture. Fortunately, local restaurants are filling that gap.

Once Glenn wraps up observations, she plans to dive deeply into developing programming. She has already worked on some exhibits and cooking classes, but would like to do more, getting into schools and collaborating on substantial programming with Bosnians. “To me, one of the really enjoyable parts is to take all of this learning and see it come to life and foster this kind of celebration,” she adds.

Beyond that, Glenn hopes the project can be a model to branch into studying other ethnic groups in St. Louis and their culinary traditions. The study is so interdisciplinary it could be taken on by anthropologists, historians, food chemists, and many others

“There’s so much here to study that really anyone with a curiosity can join.”

Helping the Garden Grow

For Glenn, coming at the project as a researcher from the Garden has had many perks, including name recognition that has opened up many doors for her. Equally important: the Garden gives researchers “the freedom to go where good science is.”

“A lot of people don’t get that freedom to say, ‘This is what should we do doing,’ and just go for it.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer
Photo by Eli Chen

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