fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘Food Flirts’ cohost Sheila Brass, cookbooks scholar and baker, dies at 85

The Brass sisters, Marilynn, 75, left, and Sheila, 80, posed with a late 19th-century French enamelware canister set from their antique collection in 2017.Pat Greenhouse

Sheila Brass baked her first cake at age 11 and became an overnight success, as she liked to say, at 79 cohosting the PBS TV show “Food Flirts” with her younger sister, Marilynn.

Homey scholars and renowned collectors of heirloom cookbooks, the Brass sisters explored their bucket list of restaurants for the show, charming chefs along the way. In one episode, Sheila Brass and a chef demonstrated their strength as each churned food through a hand grinder. Then she gave his bicep an admiring squeeze.

“What can I say? We love to flirt. But we’re harmless,” Marilynn said.

Advertisement



“Speak for yourself,” Sheila replied with a hint of reproach.

A fashion designer turned author who had delighted in every new direction her life offered, Sheila Brass died of Alzheimer’s disease Wednesday in the CareOne at Concord skilled nursing facility. She was 85 and previously had lived for many years in Cambridge.

“We always tried to find ways to feed people,” her sister said. “That was one of our goals.”

Engaging and full of questions, they also fed their boundless curiosity, which endeared the sisters to all they met.

“She was such a positive force in this world,” Denise Drower Swidey, the show’s culinary producer and supervising producer, said of Sheila. “Everybody she met felt an instant connection to her because she was so authentic.”

The sisters’ co-written books include “Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters” (2008) and “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters” (2006), which was a James Beard Foundation award finalist in the dessert and baking category. Their “Food Flirts” show was a James Beard award nominee in the broadcast media category in 2018.

As memorable as they were in person and on their show, the most enduring legacy of Sheila and Marilynn Brass may end up being their diligent scholarship, which they shared as authors in a down-to-earth way for home cooks and bakers.

Advertisement



For years they found old cookbooks at yard sales and in less likely venues, including a town dump in Maine. Some volumes were so ancient they were held together by nails. Others had handwritten recipes on scraps of paper tucked between pages or scribbled into margins.

In the books they wrote, the Brass sisters included recipes requiring ingredients that might already be in the home or easily found in a quick supermarket trip. Sheila Brass did most of the testing of often handwritten recipes that had been handed down for generations, some dating back 100 years or more.

“You can be reading the book on a rainy afternoon, and you can go in the kitchen and you’ll have everything you need right in your pantry,” she told the Globe in 2006, when “Heirloom Baking” was published.

More than just a collection of recipes, their books presented a kitchen-eye’s view of the lives of women and their families from times lost to memory. To encourage readers to continue the handwritten tradition, they left blank areas in the back of their books.

“We have several pages that are just lined,” Ms. Brass said, “so that people can write their own stories.”

The sisters’ frayed cookbooks, letters, and paper scraps bearing recipes became such a treasure that last year, Michigan State University’s renowned culinary library acquired their collection.

Advertisement



“Among the books that Sheila and Marilynn were especially fond of were over 200 community cookbooks that they gathered,” said Keith Arbour, a historian in Cambridge who helps scholars and collectors place their collections at the best and most appropriate research libraries.

As he worked with the sisters, cataloging their collection before helping to place it at Michigan State, he was struck by the personal connection they had made with each book and recipe.

“Shelia remembered where and when she bought most of the items that passed through their hands, and she frequently had a kind or an amusing story about the book’s origin with a particular dealer or another collector whose past hospitality or sense of humor she praised,” Arbour said. “Sheila never forgot any of the human transactions in amassing their great research collection.”

Born in Winthrop on April 17, 1937, Sheila Brass was the older of two sisters whose mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, was a bookkeeper before raising her daughters.

Their father, Harry Brass, was a prominent pharmacist who was the longtime director of the pharmacy at Tufts-New England Medical Center, and previously had been chief pharmacist at what was then Beth Israel Hospital.

An honor student at Winthrop High School, she graduated in 1954. Inspired by her maternal grandmother, Celia Meisel Katziff, who had been a couturier in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Sheila went to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she studied fashion design and illustration and graduated in 1958.

Advertisement



She then trained with a New York City company before returning home to design for William Collier & Son clothing in Boston.

“Sheila was fond of saying that if the number of clothes that she designed and that were sold were counted, they could have filled Fenway Park for a whole season,” Marilynn said.

After that, Marilynn said, her sister led marketing for an international research firm based in Cambridge. Both sisters worked in different capacities at WGBH as well and ran their own antiques business — along with collecting recipes, they amassed a collection of food molds and kitchen items.

They also had worked for several companies through the Kelly Services placement agency.

“We reinvent ourselves,” Sheila Brass told The Times of Israel in 2019. “We’ve recreated ourselves, reinvented ourselves many, many times.”

Ms. Brass “was such an inspiration because she had so many career pivots and life changes as an older woman,” said Swidey, a freelance TV producer who met the Brass sisters when they were judges for a cooking contest.

While helping to put together the show and find underwriters, the Brass sisters would arrive at meetings carrying a tote bag filled with a honey cake and plates and cutlery for all to share.

“They were exceptional at breaking down barriers with their personalities and scrumptious treats,” Swidey said.

“Sheila had this rosy, sunny, optimistic outlook on life, and she just baked from the heart,” she said. “There was no problem that a sweet from her kitchen couldn’t overcome. She was a natural baker and had great instincts, and that baking was how she showed her love as well.”

Advertisement



A memorial service will be announced for Ms. Brass, whose sister was her only immediate survivor.

But, perhaps because they had no children of their own, the Brass sisters developed “a large and loving” extended family, Marilynn said.

“We used to give 10 percent of our income to charity,” she said. “We felt we were put on this earth to take care of other people’s children and to make sure people got fed.”

They had lived together in Cambridge for years until Sheila’s declining health required additional medical care. Even as her memory and health declined, Marilynn said, a key trait remained.

“One of Sheila’s most endearing and valuable attributes was her optimism,” she said. “We had this thing we would say, no matter how bad things were. I’d say, ‘Is everything going to be all right?’ And Sheila would say, ‘Everything is going to be all right.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.