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PBS's Brass sisters donate 6,500 cookbooks to Michigan State University, many one of a kind

MSU Special Collection Cookbooks
Posted at 5:51 PM, Sep 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 00:25:33-04

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University's library holds one of the world's largest collections of cookbook, more than 40,000 of them.

And it just got larger.

MSU cookbooks special collection
The vault holds the most rare cookbooks in the collection.

MSU Special Collections Director Leslie McRoberts got a call from Cambridge, Massachusetts in December with an offer to add to the collection, but didn't know just exactly hot special this addition would become.

“I unfortunately had not heard of the Brass Sisters," McRoberts said. “I instantly went to Google and found out that they are these two roundish old women from Cambridge, Massachusetts who had a television show on PBS called the Food Flirts.”

“If you want to get really fancy, it was our brand and it still is our brand," said Marilynn Brass.

Marilynn and Sheila Brass
Marilynn (left) and Sheila (right) not only collected and made recipes from cookbooks they collected, they perfected them and published four of their own cookbooks.

Brass said she and her sister Sheila spent 40 years of their lives collecting cookbooks.

"We found that there was always a handwritten recipe book and usually if we went to a flea market it was in a box under a table at a yard sale it was with other books,” Brass said.

Handwritten recipes mostly from women.

“Even if they couldn’t read or write, they found ways through oral tradition to preserve these recipes and the stories of their families,” Brass said.

Handwritten manuscript cookbooks
McRoberts said her favorite part of the Brass Sister collection is the over 100 manuscript or handwritten cookbooks.

When former director of special collections Peter Berg sifted through the items in the collection, he knew.

“Peter Berg spent three days and went through it and said you would be foolish to not accept, to not purchase this collection,” McRoberts said.

They purchased the entire collection of 6,500 items, 100 of which are one of a kind, handwritten pieces of culinary history.

“A cookbook can tell you about trauma, they can tell you about love, they can tell you about those significant events that happened in a person's lifetime,” McRoberts said.

Oldest book
McRoberts said this book is one of the oldest they have in the collection and can be traced back to Paul Revere.

This purchase came with a special ingredient: a relationship with the Brass Sisters.

“They’re not just cookbook authors," McRoberts said. "It’s like having another grandmother or another aunt.”

Brass said she and her sister were honored to have been the stewards of these recipes for years.

“We want people to know how strong these people were, the women," Brass said. "They were the bakers of the bread, they were the keepers of the hearth, they were the ones who kept the family going.”

Acquiring the collection
Brass said she was happy to be a steward of this collection for so many years, but wanted to pass it on so others could learn from it like she and her sister did.

But at 79 years old, knew it was time to pass on these women's stories.

“You know, in the last part of your life, you want to pass on the knowledge,” Brass said, along with their recipes and add in a dash of their own Brass sisters story.

“Every family has a story, every family has a favorite recipe," Brass said.

The Brass Sisters have published four cookbooks and copies of those are also housed in the MSU Special Collections.

McRoberts said after they sort through all the items in the Brass collection, they will be accessible to the public.

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