A grand adventure with The Brass Sisters, before they come to Carlisle
by Karina Coombs
“I dedicated my waist to the first cookbook. I dedicated my hips to the second cookbook and I added a chin from Baking with the Brass Sisters,” says Marilynn Brass of her newest cookbook co-authored with sister, Sheila Brass. The Brass Sisters, as they are known, are the authors of three acclaimed cookbooks that incorporate their love of cooking, culinary antiquities and storytelling to explore the rich history of American home baking while immortalizing the individuals whose handwritten recipes they have thoughtfully preserved and updated. As featured speakers for the Friends of the Gleason Public Library’s annual meeting on November 17, the sisters will share delightful stories of food and culinary anthropology.
The answer is four
“We love what we’re doing and we never thought we’d end up like this,” says Sheila of their success. “We just always loved to bake.” Sheila and Marilynn began baking as children alongside their mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, in their second floor Winthrop kitchen. The sisters can still vividly recall the creations that came out of their mother’s beloved cast iron stove with green enamel trim, the kitchen floor ever so slanted that cakes required extra frosting to make them level.
“Our mother was the Cake Boss of Winthrop,” says Sheila, referring to the popular television reality show featuring eye-popping cake designs. Marilynn recounts that in the 1950s, Dorothy volunteered to make a cake for a synagogue fundraiser, spending two weekends working on a card table to painstakingly recreate the family’s synagogue, down to the tile work on its exterior. When completed, the cake was so large and so heavy that it took four men to carry it down the flight of stairs. “We always joke,” she says, “How many Jewish men does it take to carry a cake in the shape of a synagogue?”
When one door closes…
In 2006, at the age of 60, Marilynn was laid off from her job at WGBH where for more than 25 years she had worked for the unit that produced such shows as This Old House and Victory Garden. “If I don’t do a cookbook now I will never do a cookbook,” she recalls saying at the time. This idea did not come out of thin air. Marilynn had been writing since childhood and had both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English from Northeastern University. She had also spent 11 years working with Sheila , both as consultants for Miller’s Publications, where the sisters worked on a number of books about antiques and collectibles.
Antiques have played a big part in Marilynn and Sheila’s lives and for the last 40 years they have spent weekends exploring yard sales, estate sales and flea markets looking to add to their collection of culinary artifacts, a collection so extensive it has gotten the attention of the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, various museums and The James Beard House, where they have spoken three times. In addition to various food molds and other pieces, the sisters collect cookbooks and have amassed a collection of 6,500 with some dating back to the 17th century.
Of particular interest to the sisters are handwritten cookbooks or manuscript cookbooks, which they began to notice 20 or 30 years ago, tucked away in boxes that they would acquire for a dollar or less. Often written inside of old composition books, the manuscripts contained a host of additional archival material from handwritten notes in the margins, grocery lists, invitations, knitting patterns and prayers, creating a living history of the period in which they were created and offering clues about the lives of those who left them behind. “These people would have been lost,” says Marilynn.
The Brass sisters now have 250 of these books, with the oldest dating from just after the French and Indian war, described as a pamphlet containing Dutch-inspired recipes and put together by a young girl, Marilynn explains that this book also contains a child’s handwritten math sums because paper would have been difficult to come by during this period. “To us it’s very precious,” she says.
Deciding to make this collection the foundation of their cookbook, Marilynn and Sheila got to work. Because the recipes often did not include cooking temperatures or duration or standard measurement, the sisters had to rely heavily on their baking experience and with Sheila at 79 and Marilynn turning 75 this month that is a combined total of 128 years. Also invaluable is the ability of the sisters to imagine what a recipe would taste like just by reading it or how flavors would change if they experimented with ingredients, what they refer to as their “food memory bank.”
Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters
As they worked on the cookbook, Sheila, who also worked at WGBH for 25 years and was at this point the Administrative Coordinator to the Vice President of National Programming, would start her mornings serving as Marilynn’s sous chef, helping to prepare the ingredients her sister would need to test four recipes each day. “You never know what life’s going to bring,” says Sheila, who before her career at WGBH had worked for a decade as a successful New York City fashion designer. It is here that Marilynn points out her sister sold enough of her designs over the years to fill Fenway Park for an entire season. “I’ll tell you something,” Sheila adds, “It gets better as you get older.”
Returning to their shared Cambridge apartment at lunch time, Sheila would pack up the creations to bring back to the offices of WGBH for taste testing. “If we could use an apartment stove to do this and no dishwasher then anyone can do this,” says Marilynn, recalling the summer days she baked with temperatures in the 90s and without air conditioning. As Marilynn and Sheila worked with the recipes, incorporating those found in new manuscripts given to them by friends and former co-workers, they also learned things about them, allowing them to add helpful tips throughout the cookbook.
A kitchen fall led to the discovery of one tip for the Mary Williams’ Coffee Cake with Streusel (a former colleague of Marilynn’s from her earlier days at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory). When Marilynn tripped and fell while working on the cake, she was forced to put the batter into the refrigerator for 24 hours while she sought medical attention. The following day she took the batter out and baked it, allowing her to write, “Batter may be placed in the refrigerator overnight and baked the next day.”
Heirloom Baking was published in 2006 and propelled the sisters into the spotlight. The book was one of three finalists for a James Beard Foundation award. The sisters became television and radio personalities, hosting shows on PBS and the Cooking Channel, appearing on the Food Network, NPR and others while promoting the book. In 2008 they published Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters and together the two books went on to be included in Food & Wine Magazine’s annual volume of the best 25 cookbooks.
Baking With the Brass Sisters
Palma Snarski’s Cranberry, White Chocolate and Walnut Squares from Baking With the Brass Sisters. (Photo by Andy Ryan) Editor’s note: A dozen of these made their way to the Mosquito office, courtesy of Marilynn and Sheila, and were out of this world delicious.
For their third cookbook, the Brass sisters incorporated more of themselves into the recipes, turning their attention back to the 1960s and 1970s when they were “sweet young things” and living in their first Cambridge apartments. Marilynn was 26 when she moved out of Winthrop and into the YMCA in Cambridge, where she became a floor counselor and with her own money providing toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap to the girls that had nothing.
The new cookbook also includes a section of savory recipes, one of which perfectly connects their old life with their new lives in Cambridge. Marilynn explains that growing up in a kosher kitchen, the sisters idea of cheese was cream, cottage and American, but that changed when Marilynn moved to Cambridge and bought two books: The Omelet Cookbook and The Cheese Book, both of which she still has. The Cheese Book was important because the sisters were starting to go to people’s homes and were discovering cheese and fruit platters. When they started to host, they looked for something that could combine the two and created the Blue Cheese and Pear Tart.
What’s next for The Brass Sisters?
The sisters continue to support their new book with public appearances. They were recently featured on Chronicle and appeared at the WGBH Food & Wine Festival. “We’re booked until December,” says Marilynn. Their newest project brings them back to television with “The Food Flirts,” an eight episode series that focuses on “two women of a certain age” as they fulfill their bucket list of things they haven’t eaten or cooked with a focus on Cambridge and Boston. A “sizzle reel” has been shot and the sisters are currently in the fundraising stage, with a national network having expressed interest.
They also have a 92-page proposal written for a food-related memoir and Marilynn is entertaining the idea of writing a food mystery or novel, thrilled to finally have the time to write. “This came to us late because we were too busy earning a living,” she says.
The sisters also want to turn their attention back to their beloved community of Cambridge where they were recently awarded a 2016 Cambridge Food Heroes Award. Marilynn and Sheila recently attended an event celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Cambridge YMCA and hopes to be more active with the organization.
The sisters are also addressing the topic of self-esteem with a speaking engagement at the Harvard Coop on November 14 where they will talk about their experiences with bullying as children, pointing out that it can continue to happen at any point in a person’s life including the senior years. “You have to be brave and you have to speak up,” says Marilynn. “My father used to say, ‘You only go down this path once.’ You don’t want somebody else to write the script of your life.”
The Brass Sisters will be speaking at Gleason Library on November 17 at 7 p.m. Deliciously mouth-watering treats from their cookbook will be served. Advanced registration is required as space is limited.