The Brass sisters, from left, Sheila and Marilynn.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming | Styling by Catrine Kelty
There’s a hidden trove of culinary treasures in the Brass sisters’ modest, ranch-style house near Boston: a glass case filled with antique copper molds, a signed diploma from Fannie Farmer’s cooking school, a mantel lined with original editions of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Downstairs, a maze of shelves and cabinets contains multitudes of old tins, antique yellow ware, pale green Depression glass.
And then there are the less obvious gems: the sisters who reside here. “We are two roundish women in their seventies,” Marilynn and Sheila often say. They are passionate home cooks, collectors of family lore (theirs and yours), and late-in-life TV personalities (Sheila turned 80 this year). Self-described “unclaimed treasures,” neither chose to marry, opting to savor the independence that girls like them weren’t expected to have. And together, they have written three cookbooks (they wrote the first, Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters, in their sixties), as well as one compendium, From Grandma’s Kitchen.
This year they launched a new PBS series, Food Flirts, in which they charm secrets from a bevy of chefs—mostly handsome young men (“We’re harmless,” Marilynn insists)—on the way to tackling their culinary bucket list (curing pastrami, cooking Indian food, mastering the art of the perfect burger). Every episode concludes with the sisters back in their own kitchen, where they translate these lessons into a home-cooked meal for their new friends. Usually, someone ends up dancing.
Marilynn, who with her perky nose and bow-shaped mouth suggests Cindy Lou Who in her golden years, is younger, but she is the alpha sister who speaks first, handles the email, and leads the TV segments. Sheila, five years her senior, prefers to step back and pepper their patter with one-liners. They are an ecosystem unto themselves, two perfectly attuned comedic foils. When they sit together on the couch in the living room, Sheila leans in to her sister and twines their fingers, a tender habit that evokes their years growing up on Sea Foam Avenue in Winthrop, where their mother, Dorothy, taught them to make cakes and cookies and challah for Shabbat dinner. Perhaps it was Dorothy’s early death, when the sisters were just in their twenties, that kept them so connected to the kitchen even as they made their way in the working world, through secretarial and editorial jobs, stints as fashion designers and antiques dealers (hence all those copper molds), and long tenures at WGBH—a connection that came in handy when they wrote their first cookbook. “We’ve always wanted to work together,” Marilynn says. “We may snip at each other sometimes, but we’ve been orphans most of our lives, and we really brought each other up.”
Along the way, they began collecting manuscript cookbooks, informal collections pulled together by church and synagogue groups, Junior Leagues, women’s clubs. But they especially loved stumbling across family recipe collections—unbound, pasted into notebooks, or tied together. Every recipe has a story, they say, and they have made it their mission to be the keepers of those stories. When you talk with the sisters, there’s the sense of time as something layered, the past always present, even as they move toward the next adventure. “We keep reminding people,” Marilynn says, “it’s so important to do a gentle interrogation of the elders to get the stories and the recipes.” Even from your grumpy Aunt Linda? “Families are like fudge,” Marilynn says. “Sweet, but with a few nuts.”
The following recipes showcase a few of the Brass sisters’ favorite holiday treats, made sweeter for the memories they evoke.