“Speak for yourself,” Sheila replied with a hint of reproach.
A fashion designer turned author who had relished every new direction her life offered, Sheila Brass died of Alzheimer’s disease on Wednesday at the CareOne skilled nursing facility in Concord. She was 85 and had previously lived for many years in Cambridge.
“We always tried to find ways to feed people,” her sister said. “That was one of our goals.”
Committed and full of questions, they also nurtured their boundless curiosity, which endeared the sisters to everyone they met.
“She was such a positive force in this world,” Denise Drower Swidey, the show’s food producer and supervisor, said of Sheila. “Everyone she met felt an instant connection with her because she was so genuine.”
Books co-authored by the sisters include “Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters” (2008) and “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters” (2006), which was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award in the dessert and baking category . Their show “Food Flirts” was nominated for the James Beard Award in the Broadcast Media category in 2018.
As memorable as they were in person and on their show, Sheila and Marilynn Brass’s most enduring legacy may end up being their diligent scholarship, which they shared as authors in a matter-of-fact manner. -earth for home cooks and bakers.
For years, they’ve found old cookbooks in garage sales and less likely places, including a municipal landfill in Maine. Some volumes were so old that they were held together by nails. Others had recipes handwritten on scraps of paper slipped between pages or scribbled in the margins.
In the books they wrote, the Brass sisters included recipes that called for ingredients that might already be at home or easily found on a quick trip to the supermarket. Sheila Brass did most of the testing of often handwritten recipes that have been passed down for generations, some dating back 100 years or more.
“You can read the book on a rainy afternoon, and you can go into the kitchen and you’ll have everything you need in your pantry,” she told The Globe in 2006, when published from “Heirloom Baking”.
More than just a collection of recipes, their books presented a kitchen eye’s perspective on the lives of women and their families at times lost in memory. To encourage readers to continue the handwritten tradition, they left blank areas on the spine of their books.
“We have several pages that are just lined,” Ms. Brass said, “so people can write their own stories.”
The sisters’ cookbooks, letters and shredded scraps of paper containing recipes have become such a treasure that last year Michigan State University’s famed Culinary Library acquired their collection.
“Among the books that Sheila and Marilynn particularly loved were over 200 community cookbooks that they collected,” said Keith Arbour, a Cambridge historian who helps scholars and collectors place their collections in the best and most appropriate research libraries.
As he worked with the sisters, cataloging their collection before helping place it in the state of Michigan, he was struck by the personal connection they had made with each book and each recipe.
“Shelia remembered where and when she bought most of the items that passed through their hands, and she often had a sweet or funny story about the origin of the book with a particular dealer or other collector whose hospitality she praised. or a sense of humor.” says Arbour. “Sheila never forgot any of the human transactions while amassing their large research collection.”
Born in Winthrop on April 17, 1937, Sheila Brass was the eldest of two sisters whose mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, was an accountant before raising her daughters.
Their father, Harry Brass, was a prominent pharmacist who served for a long time as director of pharmacy at Tufts-New England Medical Center, and had previously served as chief pharmacist at what was then Beth Israel Hospital.
An honorary student at Winthrop High School, she graduated in 1954. Inspired by her maternal grandmother, Celia Meisel Katziff, who had been a seamstress in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Sheila went to Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she studied fashion design and illustration and graduated in 1958.
She then trained in a New York firm before returning home to design clothes for William Collier & Son in Boston.
“Sheila liked to say that if the number of clothes she designed and sold had been counted, they could have filled Fenway Park for an entire season,” Marilynn said.
After that, Marilynn says, her sister ran marketing for a Cambridge-based international research firm. Both sisters also worked in different capacities at WGBH and ran their own antique business. In addition to collecting recipes, they have amassed a collection of food pans and kitchen items.
They had also worked for several companies through the placement agency Kelly Services.
“We are reinventing ourselves,” Sheila Brass told The Times of Israel in 2019. “We have recreated ourselves, reinvented ourselves, many, many times.
Ms Brass “has been such an inspiration because she’s had so many career pivots and life changes as an older woman,” said Swidey, an independent television producer who met the Brass sisters when they were judges for a cooking competition.
While helping to put on the show and find backers, the Brass sisters would arrive at meetings with a tote bag full of honey cake, plates and cutlery to share.
“They were exceptional at breaking down barriers with their personalities and delicious 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 candy from her kitchen couldn’t overcome. She was a natural baker and had great instincts, and this baking was also how she showed her love.
A memorial service will be announced for Ms Brass, whose sister was her only immediate survivor.
But, perhaps because they had no children, the Brass sisters developed a “large and loving” extended family, Marilynn said.
“We used to give 10% of our income to charity,” she said. “We felt we were on this earth to look after other people’s children and to make sure people were fed.”
They had lived together in Cambridge for years until Sheila’s declining health required further medical attention. Even though her memory and health declined, Marilynn said, one key trait remained.
“One of Sheila’s most endearing and treasured attributes was her optimism,” she said. “We had this thing that we said no matter how bad things got. I would say, ‘Is everything going to be okay?’ And Sheila was like, “It’s going to be fine. “
Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]