Start with a love of cooking and baking, sprinkle in a dash of history, and stir in a heaping mix of love for Northeastern and you have the perfect recipe for success for Marilynn Brass, LA’64, MA’66.
Brass, of Cambridge, Mass., and her sister, Sheila, recently held their Holiday Cooking with the Brass Sisters event at Northeastern’s Xhibition Kitchen, helping alumni, students, family, and friends whip up delicious holiday recipes. The program was equal parts cooking demonstration, instruction, and entertainment, a format the Brass Sisters have perfected over the years.
“Sheila and I have been interested in cooking since before we could reach the top of the kitchen table,” Marilynn said. “She and I would watch my mother cooking with all the creativity and work that went into it. A lot of care and attention to detail went into her preparation and has played a role in how we approach it.”
Brass received a surprise – and, in hindsight, a fortuitous push – when she was laid off from her job at WGBH, where she worked at the Boston PBS station’s How-Tos Unit that produced “This Old House,” “The Victory Garden,” and “The New Yankee Workshop.“ However, Marilynn, who had just turned 60, and Sheila never missed a beat. With nearly 120 years of cooking and baking experience between them, they have always felt comfortable in the kitchen. Sharing their love for food and culinary history seemed like a natural progression.
“We had been going through cookbooks my sister and I had been acquiring for years, and we just decided to start cooking and baking from the handwritten recipes,” Brass recalled. “I said, ‘If we’re going to put together a cookbook, we might as well do it now.”
Their first book, “Heirloom Baking With The Brass Sisters” was nominated for a James Beard Award in the Baking and Dessert category. Both Heirloom Baking and Heirloom Cooking, their second book, were selected by Food & Wine Magazine for their annual volume, The Best of the Best 25 Cookbooks of the Year. Multi-city book tours across the country followed. In 2011, The Brass Sisters were included in Bill and Kerry Brett’s book, Boston’s Inspirational Women.
Buttressed by an impressive collection of manuscript cookbooks – compilations that often included just a list of ingredients, no times or temperatures – the Brass sisters hit the kitchen. The cookbooks date back as far as the 18th century, including one from just after the French-Indian War, and were a treasure trove of information.
The cookbooks fed into the Brass Sisters’s keen appreciation for history, and gave them a fantastic opportunity to utilize pieces from the world-class collection of culinary antiques they’ve been acquiring for nearly four decades. All told, the Brass sisters have 6,500 cookbooks and more than 2,000 utensils and food molds. They consider themselves culinary anthropologists.
In 2006, Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters was published, followed two years later by Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters.
The sisters have appeared in their own television cooking specials including “The Brass Sisters Holiday” on the Cooking Channel and “The Brass Sisters: Queens of Comfort Food” on WGBH. They have been guests on the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” on which the sisters won their throwdown by baking an heirloom recipe for Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. They also appeared on PBS’s “Simply Ming,” hosted by Ming Tsai, and have made appearances on “Antiques Roadshow FYI.”
But Brass is quick to credit her years at Northeastern as the foundation for her success.
“What I learned at Northeastern, both in the classroom and on co-op [at The Boston Globe], served me in good stead,” said Brass, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and her master’s degree in English, and said she was one of just 224 women in the 2,000-member Class of 1964. “When I entered Northeastern at 18 years old in 1959, I wanted to write. I wanted to be a journalist. But, at that time, there were not a lot of writing jobs for women.
”My co-op job at the Globe was in the morgue [the newspaper’s library] and that’s where I learned to do research and got my appreciation for history.”
Upon graduating, Brass became an editorial secretary at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory and later started the Office of Public Communications when the lab was divested by MIT and became the C. S. Draper Laboratory. She was also in charge of employee and community relations for 6½ years. She launched a communications and antiques business with her sister in 1975 before joining WGBH in 1984. It was when the program, This Old House was sold, and Brass was laid off that she had the opportunity to realize her dream of writing full-time.
“You always hope to be successful in what you do, whatever it is,” Brass said. “You can never stop working. We were always interested in cooking and antiques, so working together on the things we love seemed pretty natural.”
And they clearly have the right touch.