BOSTON — We’re all familiar with the delicious classic American food pairings: Peanut butter and jelly. Bagels and lox. But pastrami and ramen?
Marilynn and Sheila Brass, two Jewish-American sisters in their golden years, have parlayed 130 years of combined cooking experience into “The Food Flirts,” an eclectic PBS television show that reflects their keen interest in diverse food.
The show airs on local PBS stations around the country, and is available to stream at PBS.org and via Amazon Prime.
Each episode presents a mashup recipe that brings together two seemingly disparate dishes. There’s the hit pastrami ramen-noodle kugel episode, which culminated in Japanese musicians visiting the sisters’ kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they found klezmer tunes online and streamed them on a laptop. And there’s the recipe that combined two desserts from across the globe — a tres leches cake from Latin America and Thai ice cream.
“The show is a blending, uniting, appreciation for cultures and cuisines,” Marilynn said. “It’s the theme of our series.”
“It’s food without borders,” Sheila said. “It’s just an environment to learn how people’s differences are really assets. Take two chairs and a table, put the chairs on either side of the table, people sit down, eat together and start a conversation.”
Sheila’s the older one, at 81. Marilynn is younger, at 77. They both exude seemingly endless energy, as noted by their executive producer, Bruce Seidel. They are home cooks and bakers who show viewers how to make their recipes while kibbitzing with local chefs, Seidel and each other.
“I sort of skirt the word ‘elderly,’” Marilynn said. “We are older women of a certain age. We feel life is an adventure. We show young people and older people that life does not stop at 50, 60, even 70. Older people can be curious, adventuresome, and they can actually try new things.”
It’s a remarkable path that builds upon the sisters’ previous accomplishments as culinary authors and collectors.
“It’s just us on an adventure — that’s one of the premises,” Sheila said. “The other thing is, we reinvent ourselves. We’ve recreated ourselves, reinvented ourselves many, many times.”
Their most recent reinvention began upon realizing that they had never tried sushi before when they sat down for dinner with Seidel at New York’s famed Morimoto restaurant in 2010.
They were there after doing a one-hour holiday special for one of Seidel’s previous employers, The Cooking Channel. As Marilynn recalled, everyone in their party except the sisters ordered sushi, and afterward Seidel invited them to try it.
“He asked, ‘Are there other foods you haven’t tried?’” Marilynn recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, there are.’ We had 125, 126 years of combined cooking experience at the time, but we’d never tried a ramen bowl, things like that.”
Fast-forward to several years later, and Seidel had left The Food Network and The Cooking Channel. He was finally able to convince the sisters to do their own TV series on this new culinary horizons theme.
“It’s a natural fit that we all came together,” Seidel reflected. “They grew up in the Boston area, where there’s so much different food. I said, ‘Yes, you have to explore and find it.’”
In each episode, they visit local restaurants where chefs show them how to make specific dishes. Then the sisters return to their home base in Cambridge and combine the recipes into one — like the pastrami ramen noodle kugel. They learned how to cure pastrami at Mamaleh’s Jewish deli in Cambridge, and got a lesson in making ramen noodles at the Shojo Japanese restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown.
“They made ramen noodles from scratch, as well as broth,” Seidel said, “and artisan pastrami at Mamaleh’s. They put it together into pastrami ramen broth, ramen noodles in their kitchen. It was spectacular.”
As Marilynn explained it, the episode illustrates the “whole concept of the show,” which is to “celebrate the multi-ethnic diversity of America.”
There’s a lighthearted aspect to the show as well. While the sisters sampled the pastrami ramen noodle kugel in their kitchen, they danced with Denise Swidey, their supervising and culinary producer, as Japanese street musicians streamed klezmer songs on Swidey’s laptop.
In the episode that combined a tres leches cake with Thai ice cream, the sisters got a surprise visit from two salsa dance teachers. Marilynn shimmied to the music, joking, “Is this geriatric salsa?”
“The banter is really great,” Seidel said. “The two of them finish each other’s sentences. They complement each other. In the kitchen, they’re the same way. One does one part, the other does another [part]. They may disagree, but [each] lets the other do it her way.” And, he said, “Marilynn does most of the talking,” but “Sheila loves to get a zinger in from time to time.”
Marilynn emphasized that the flirting of the show’s title is meant to be lighthearted.
“Sheila and I love people, but we also understand people are complex,” Marilynn said. “We’re exceptionally careful in our dealings with people. To a chef, we might say, ‘You have beautiful blue eyes and dimples,’ but we’re very respectful when we interact with people.”
The sisters were among the finalists for a James Beard Award for best host or food personality. While they didn’t win, they got a favorable review from the head of the committee.
“She told me about the show, ‘I didn’t know what to expect. I loved it,’” Marilynn said.
They’re a hit with hometown fans, too. When Seidel visits Boston, he said, “People call out their names from cars, they say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the Brass Sisters, the Food Flirts, we love you!’”
Marilynn recalls one particular fan at an event sponsored by one of the series funders, the Jewish Arts Collaborative. The fan approached the sisters and said that after enduring a year filled with problems, she watched the show and invited a friend to come over. She told Marilynn, “We both watched and started to laugh. I had not laughed in a year.”
“To me, it’s a supreme compliment,” Marilynn said. “It’s worth all the hard work if I know I can bring comfort to someone.”
This past year marked the sisters’ second season on PBS. Seidel said they are “waiting to hear” about a third season.
“We started the series almost two and a half, three years ago,” Marilynn reflected. “We were both in our 70s. He wanted to know if we could do it. We did. Some of the younger people on the show are exhausted at the end of the day. We’re still running and doing it.”
Learning tradition in a changing world
The sisters have been on the move from early on in life.
They grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in the seaside community of Winthrop, Massachusetts. Their parents, Harry Brass and Dorothy Katziff Brass, were both active in their local synagogue, Temple Tifereth Abraham. Dorothy was an accomplished cook who made kreplach and knishes — and, once, a three-dimensional cake in the shape of the synagogue to benefit the temple building fund.
“Four men carried it down to the synagogue,” Marilynn remembered. “It was auctioned off, but it was so huge, it was sold in quarters. In the early 1950s, it was auctioned off for $35 a quarter — $140 for the building fund, a lot of money.”
“We were fortunate,” she said. “Our parents were very traditional. They were also aware the world was changing.”
The sisters were aware of this too as they grew up and became independent. Sheila moved to New York in 1958 to pursue a career in fashion design, finding success before returning home. Marilynn was the first sister to leave home for good. She moved to Cambridge in 1967 for a closer commute to her then-employer, MIT. Sheila moved out two years later and rose to the position of marketing director for an international firm in Cambridge.
But the sisters eventually left their jobs. Their widowed father was now ill, and his daughters nursed him in the final two years of his life.
“Our mother was dead, so it was up to us,” Sheila said.
The sisters did the shopping, cooking and cleaning while bonding as a family with their father.
“There’s nothing as good as something made by someone who loves you,” Marilynn said, referring to an essay she wrote on her Facebook page. “There’s nothing better-tasting than cooking for someone you love.”
The sisters pursued their interest in cooking over the decades, acquiring an eye-opening collection of historical cookbooks and artifacts while becoming best-selling cookbook authors themselves, including “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters,” which was a finalist for an award from the James Beard Foundation.
“Their cookbook ‘Heirloom Baking’ collected recipes they found in estate sales, antique stores and from cookbooks,” Seidel said. “They have a 2,000-book library of books related to food, from the earliest in the 1600s to the present day.” He likened the sisters to “a living encyclopedia of food and food history.”
“I’m amazed by their passion, their drive,” Seidel said. “For people of their generation, I love how they’ve been able to reinvent themselves many times in life.”
And like all good reinventions, the show has an element of the unexpected. Just consider the cheeseburger dosa episode, inspired by the fare at Mainely Burgers and the cuisine of Dosa-N-Curry.
“We had a troupe of Indian dancers,” Marilynn recalled. “We had no idea they were coming into our house. Our guests and the troupe danced in our living room. It’s a fun show, and a serious show.”