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Missouri Botanical Garden scientist eats with Bosnians to learn how urban life affects cuisine

Missouri Botanical Garden researcher Ashley Glenn learning to cook in Bosnia from a homemaker named Dunja.
Ashley Glenn | Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden researcher Ashley Glenn, standing to the right, learning to cook in Bosnia from a homemaker named Dunja.

On a recent Saturday, four middle-aged Bosnian women bustled in a warmly lit kitchen at Fontbonne University. Bags of flour and sugar, metal mixing bowls and trays of flaky pastries filled, called pitas, were spread across an island. The air smelled strongly of bread, butter and cheese.

Ashley Glenn, a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, stood next to the women, providing commentary about the food for an audience of about two dozen people. Glenn has spent the last year and a half interviewing more than 100 Bosnians in St. Louis and in Bosnia about their cuisine and food rituals.

“Do you want to make more or should we move on to hurmašica?” Glenn asked. 

The women nod and respond, “hurmašica,” and they swiftly gather ingredients and bowls. Hurmašica are golden-brown cookies that are drenched in syrup. After they show the brand of coconut flour they use and mold the cookies into oval shapes, they populate an entire tray with them, which goes into the oven. After some time, the women take the cookies out of the oven and pour the syrup over them, which makes a loud hissing noise.

“So I don’t know if you can see it from where you’re sitting, but the sugar is being sucked up immediately by the cookies,” Glenn told a guest. 

Glenn is an ethnobotanist and in her department, researchers typically choose to focus a culture that’s established itself in certain places for a long period of time and study how they use plants.

Two Bosnian women demonstrate how to make hurmasica, a popular Bosnian dessert, at a cooking workshop given at Fontbonne University in November 2017.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Two Bosnian women demonstrate how to make hurmasica, a popular Bosnian dessert, at a cooking workshop given at Fontbonne University in November.

However, the Missouri Botanical Garden had never focused on any communities in its own city. Glenn chose to study Bosnians, partly because St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population in the United States.

“The story of St. Louis and the way people use plants here is a story of food,” Glenn said. “And then the story of food in St. Louis is really an immigrant story. We have so many Bosnians here. It’s such a strong and vibrant community and a lot of other St. Louisans don’t really have a lot knowledge about what’s going on. So we wanted to study the food story of St. Louis through the eyes of Bosnians.”  

She wanted to study how a culture changes when people move from a largely rural area to one that’s more urban. Glenn began her project by going to Bosnian restaurants and talking to families. Immediately, she noticed that Bosnian cuisine isn’t much removed from what Americans tend to eat.

“Bosnians are people who like good bread, they like barbecue, fresh salads,” Glenn said. “It’s all stuff the American palate can find really comfortable.”



But there are also major differences between the two cultures. In many interviews, Glenn often heard from Bosnians in St. Louis that they missed having the access to fresh produce they had back in their home country.

“When I traveled to Bosnia, I was struck by the quality of the food,” she said. “The whole landscape is just dotted with organic farms. Everyone’s pulling food out of their backyards to cook with, so the tomatoes, potatoes, pickles ... everything’s really vibrant and fresh.”


A small organic farm in Bosnia.
Credit Ashley Glenn | Missouri Botanical Garden
Bosnian farms are typically small, organic and contain a variety of plants.

Moving to an urban area such as St. Louis also means traveling more miles to find fresh produce. When Drita Hasambasic moved to St. Louis in 1999, she found it difficult to find some vegetables.

“We don’t have time to go to certain places where there is fresh food,” said Hasambasic, 61. “But some people go to Amish people to buy peppers, yellow peppers.”

Also, in rural Bosnia, the pace of life is slower. Many people wake up early to work on the farm and throughout the day, they’ll take long coffee breaks.

“Whereas we grab coffee on the go or have some while we work, for Bosnians, sitting down with coffee is a ritual,” 

This tray shows a traditional way of serving Bosnian coffee with kajmak, a soft cheese made from fresh milk from a neighbor's cow.
Credit Ashley Glenn | Missouri Botanical Garden
This tray shows a traditional way of serving Bosnian coffee with kajmak, a soft cheese made from fresh milk from a neighbor's cow.

  Glenn said. “It’s a food experience. You’ve got treats. You’ve got strong coffee. You don’t do any work. You don’t rush it. You sit with your family and talk about your day.”

Bosnian children who grew up in St. Louis regard food differently than their parents. They don’t have as much time to spend on long coffee breaks or baking for hours on a daily basis. Glenn noted that a Bosnian friend who grew up in the United States had confessed to her that she sometimes just wanted to drink coffee in her car.

“To her, it felt very un-Bosnian and sacrilegious,” Glenn said. “It’s funny for me to hear because it’s so normal for Americans.”

Bosnian-American poet Maja Sadikovic, who moved to St. Louis when she was 8 years old, said she also can’t commit the amount of time her mother does in the kitchen.

“I’ve personally never made burek sirnica, zeljanica, or krompiruša because it takes  so much time,” Sadikovic said. “My mom spends that whole morning making the phyllo dough and doing it properly because she wants it to taste good for us.”

Glenn is still interviewing Bosnians and figuring out the direction of her research. But eventually, she wants to share what she’s learned about Bosnian cuisine by holding outreach events, such as the cooking workshop, at Fontbonne University.

“In noticing how people create cuisine in real time, it’s a community event,” Glenn said. “People are pulling from a shared past, a shared memory, a shared landscape to decide what their cuisine is. But in another way, you can think of it as just all these individual people making daily decisions based on what makes sense of them, based on their traditions, tiny decisions that come together to make cuisine.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.