Culinary alumna and sister defy age, charm audiences in PBS series

Marilynn Brass poses in her Cambridge home
01/26/18 – CAMBRIDGE, MA. – Marilynn, LA’64, MA’66, Brass and Sheila Brass (Brass Sisters) bake a vanilla cake and ginger cookies in their home in Cambridge, MA. on Jan. 26, 2018. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Even before their latest venture, cookbook authors and food experts Marilynn Brass, LA’64, MA’66 (above), and her sister, Sheila, had already established their cred in the culinary world.

They’d beaten a world-renowned chef at his own game, winning an episode of the Food Channel’s popular Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Food & Wine magazine called the sisters “dessert geniuses.” One of their cookbooks was a finalist for a James Beard award, the foodie equivalent of an Oscar.

But now, after a few episodes of their PBS TV show The Food Flirts, which aired to nationwide press accolades, they’re trying to keep pace with the constant demand for personal appearances.

“I love to joke and say ‘I’m 76 and Sheila is 80. It only took us this long to become an overnight success,’” quipped Marilynn, who along with her sister is a co-executive producer of the show.

Here’s the concept of the show: In each episode, the Brass sisters “flirt” and laugh their way into two chefs’ restaurants to uncover the secrets behind ethnically diverse dishes. The sisters then return to their home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to create cross-cultural mash-ups that novices or experts alike can duplicate.

After discovering, for instance, how one chef cures his artisanal pastrami and another hand-makes his famed ramen noodles, what else would the sisters create except pastrami ramen noodle kugel? Sheila likes to say, “It’s food without borders.”

The show is unscripted and utterly charming. With their unmistakable Boston accents and amusing repartee, the Brass sisters make you feel like you’re in the kitchen with your own grandmother—except these cooks are probably a lot sassier than your average septuagenarian.

To get unrehearsed clips, the producers decided to make the women comfortable in their own living room, then peppered them with questions.

“Three guys would be shouting, ‘Talk about your experience with pastrami. What was it like to grow up in Winthrop, Massachusetts? Talk about Brazilian soap operas. Say it in your own words.’ We did—we talked a lot,” said Marilynn—enough for four more shows that are now being edited and tentatively scheduled to run on PBS this winter.

“We’ve never worked so hard, but we always work hard,” said Marilynn, describing their 10- to 12-hour workdays. “And we loved every minute of it.”

The Food Flirts is executive produced by Bruce Seidel, who worked with the sisters in 2011 on a one-hour holiday special for the Cooking Channel. At the time, he was senior vice president of programming and strategy and later left to form his own company, Hot Lemon Productions.

“He told us he was looking for a fish-out-of-water experience,” said Marilynn. “He wanted to do a series with us—two women of a certain age who had been cooking for a very long time and would be willing to try things they never had tried before. We had just finished a book tour for our fourth cookbook, Baking With The Brass Sisters, and he came out [to the Boston area] and scouted locations.”

Marilynn and Sheila Brass

I love to joke and say ‘I’m 76 and Sheila is 80. It only took us this long to become an overnight success.’

Marilynn Brass, LA’64, MA’66

The women recently took their shtick on the road, appearing on Rachael Ray’s Jan. 12 show and charming their way into three New York kitchens to learn how to make trendy desserts.

“We’ve gone national. It’s a dream come true,” said Marilynn. They stay true to their Massachusetts roots as well, often donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of their cookbooks to women’s groups, local libraries, and charities. They’ve also made more than a dozen appearances in Xhibition Kitchen, baking for Northeastern students, faculty, alums, and community members in the university’s state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen.

But it’s more than fame that motivates these women to work way past typical retirement age.

“It’s not what you put on the table, it’s what you bring to the table” is one of their catchphrases. As Marilynn put it: “There’s so much uncertainty in the world right now. We just want to celebrate the ethnic diversity of America’s cuisines and cultures. We want to foster the feeling of inclusion.

“This is not the time to exclude people. People are really very much alike when they sit down to eat together.”