Food & dining

To know the Brass sisters is to want to cook up a show for them — they’re that fun

Sisters Marilynn (left) and Sheila Brass star in the PBS show “Food Flirts.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Sisters Marilynn (left) and Sheila Brass star in the PBS show “Food Flirts.”

Deep in the heart of Chinatown, two women of a certain age hover before a noodle-making machine, preparing ramen. The noodle-maker has a name: Gertrude.

“Push, Gertrude, push!” yells one of the women.

Advertisement

“This is like childbirth!” says another.

This is also great television. The women are Marilynn and Sheila Brass, known as the Brass Sisters. Marilynn is 75. Sheila is 80. Together, they star in the upcoming PBS show “Food Flirts,” an eight-episode series debuting on July 28.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In each episode, they visit two restaurant kitchens to sample two ingredients they’ve never had before. Then they retreat to their shared Cambridge abode to create a dish that features both.

An early episode finds them at Kendall Square’s modern Jewish deli, Mamaleh’s, salivating over pastrami alongside chef Tyler Sundet. They’re allured by the cure and crust — a mixture of toasted cloves, coriander, allspice, and black pepper.

“The smell of spices takes me back!” kvells Sheila.

Advertisement

“I wax nostalgic when I smell cigar smoke and pastrami,” adds Marilynn, recalling the scent of her Uncle Julius’s pastrami sandwiches.

They’re also allured by Sundet (and other chefs), hence the show’s title. After taking turns grinding the spice mixture, Sundet and Sheila take turns feeling one another’s “big guns.”

“We love to flirt, but we’re harmless,” confesses Marilynn.

“Speak for yourself,” says Sheila.

Later, they bundle off to Chinatown’s Shojo — with producer Bruce Seidel at the wheel — home of Gertrude the Noodle Machine. There, former chef Mark O’Leary (he’s since departed) teaches them how to make an aromatic ramen broth, using kelp and chicken feet for richness. After spending time in the kitchen, they settle into the dining room, where they grapple with chopsticks (“We haven’t been to Chinatown in 40 years,” they admit) and slurp on ramen as O’Leary and owner Brian Moy beam.

“They’re the sweetest two people you’ll ever meet. They’re both rich with wit, curiosity, and charm,” says O’Leary, who fist-bumped the ladies instead of embracing them on camera because he was recovering from the flu.

Lest you think these are two twittering grannies endearing themselves to patient chefs, think again. They have lived as neighbors or roommates for four decades — no children, never married, though both have “come close,” Marilynn says — opting instead to cook and bake.

‘What we like to say is: It’s not just what you put on the table. It’s what you bring to the table. And the show is a celebration of that.’

Quote Icon

“We have 130 years of combined experience,” they like to say.

And they know their stuff.

After careers at WGBH and in the antiques business, they wrote several cookbooks, including “Baking With the Brass Sisters,” “Heirloom Cooking With the Brass Sisters,” and “Heirloom Baking With the Brass Sisters,” in which they reworked handwritten and antique manuscript cookbook recipes for modern readers.

That last cookbook, published in 2006, put them on the map: It was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award, and the chatty duo went on to appear on TV shows like “Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” where they baked pineapple upside-down cake (and beat him).

“People now change jobs once, twice, three times in a lifetime. The ladies are the originators of reinvention,” says Seidel.

Now they reside in a narrow single-family rented home on the fringes of North Cambridge packed with antique food molds accumulated from yard sales (they once went to 40 in one weekend) and dealers. Slices of watermelon — not antique — sit atop a display case. The letters “EAT” protrude from a wall in front of the kitchen, bubbling up like marshmallows on a graham cracker crust.

It’s like a gourmet Grey Gardens, just crying out for a film crew.

The idea was the brainchild of former Cooking Channel and Food Network executive Seidel, who encountered the ladies during their Food Network appearances. He grew even more charmed during a lunch at New York City’s Morimoto restaurant, known for raw fish. They initially ordered black cod, says Marilynn, because neither had tried sushi before, something they confessed to Seidel.

Ergo, a TV show in which they’d try new foods with support from similarly charmed chef pals.

“There are so many things we’ve never tried. We’re tackling our culinary bucket list,” says Marilynn.

After their pastrami and ramen adventure, the pair went home and created an original “knock your socks off” ramen noodle kugel with chicken fat, topped with a lattice-work of breadcrumbs and pastrami. Then, they invited chefs from both restaurants over for a hybrid feast.

“This is about the blending of cultures in America,” says Marilynn, who grew up Jewish in a triple-decker in Winthrop. “What we like to say is: It’s not just what you put on the table. It’s what you bring to the table. And the show is a celebration of that.”

Other episodes include “Burger Meets Dosa,” where the ladies visit Cambridge’s Mainely Burgers (Marilynn guessed every ingredient in their secret sauce despite not having cooked a burger since the 1960s) and Somerville’s Dosa-n-Curry (where Sheila was offered a private cooking lesson, wink-wink).

The women test recipes up to 10 times. Lest you think they shop at elite grocers, however, think again. Marilynn prefers Market Basket.

“I like the diverse work force and customers who come in their native costumes and speak many languages,” she says.

True enough, this isn’t a slicked-up Food Network affair. Instead, everyone pitched in, including former TV executive Seidel, who helped to clean the ladies’ bathroom and take out trash. Various rooms in the small Cambridge house functioned as dressing rooms and staging areas.

“The thing I loved is that everybody did everything. We shot four episodes in two weeks without a lot of money. I did Sheila’s makeup and mine because I’ve taken a tutorial with a good makeup person,” says Marilynn.

No divas here. What does it take to live together, film together, and cook together for all these years?

“We work like dogs, but we love it. And we apologize to each other. We say ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude.’ We never go to bed angry,” Marilynn says.

“And we didn’t gain an ounce during filming,” adds Sheila.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.