Notice: Due to ongoing construction, 4 East is currently closed to the public.  To obtain items located on 4 East, please place an online request for the item to be paged for you using the ‘Place Request’ button in the catalog. Please visit our Circulation FAQ page for assistance in using our catalog.
Notice: Due to ongoing construction, 4 East is currently closed to the public.  To obtain items located on 4 East, please place an online request for the item to be paged for you using the ‘Place Request’ button in the catalog. Please visit our Circulation FAQ page for assistance in using our catalog.

MSU Libraries receives significant estate gift to support culinary collection

Marilynn and Sheila in their Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen. Photograph by Rachel King, 2015.
Authored by
Elise Jajuga

EAST LANSING, Mich., March 2024 – Marilynn and Sheila Brass are leaving another indelible mark on the Stephen O. Murray & Keelung Hong Special Collections with one of the largest estate pledges in the history of the Michigan State University Libraries.

The Sheila and Marilynn Brass Culinary Collection Fund will support the Sheila and Marilynn Brass Culinary Collection. The MSU Libraries’ already robust cookery collection was significantly expanded in 2021 with the acquisition of Sheila and Marilynn Brass’s personal library. In addition to 6,500 cookbooks spanning five centuries, the acquisition also included over 100 handwritten manuscript cookbooks, community cookbooks and hundreds of published cookbooks. In addition to the cookbooks, the Brass Sisters also donated their archive of food ephemera, menus and personal papers. Today the Special Collections holds more than 40,000 cookbooks and culinary related ephemera. Now, Marilynn Brass has left their estate to MSU Libraries to support the collection and its preservation and growth.

MSU Libraries Dean Neil Romanosky expressed enthusiasm for the gift. “This generous legacy endowment from Marilynn and Sheila Brass aligns perfectly with the stewardship values held by the Libraries, especially given the sisters’ particular emphasis on preserving the stories of the women behind the recipes featured in the cookery collection they founded in our Special Collections.”

Sheila and Marilynn Brass, more famously known as the Brass Sisters, are considered pioneers in the U.S. cookery scene with their “heirloom” baking and cooking cookbooks, including “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters” (2006), which was a James Beard Foundation Award finalist in the dessert and baking category and named to “Food & Wine” magazine’s Top 25 Cookbooks of the Year. Along with authoring three additional cookbooks, the Brass Sisters were cohosts and executive producers of the 2017 television series “The Food Flirts” on PBS. The nationally aired series featured the Brass Sisters exploring and celebrating the diversity of cuisines and cultures across the United States and garnered an additional James Beard Foundation nomination as a finalist for the Broadcast Media Award for best TV show on location, outstanding host/personality, in 2018.

two women smiling and holding a giant icecream cone
Marilynn and Sheila with an ice cream cone sign, c. 1960s, from their collection of culinary antiques. Photograph by Michael Piazza for Culture Magazine, 2015.
Women standing with two female children on either side
Marilynn and Sheila with their mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, who taught them how to cook and bake, Winthrop Shore Drive, Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1946. Photograph by their father, Harry Brass.

The question of where to place the responsibility of preserving their work was one that the Brass Sisters took seriously, Marilynn Brass said, as their purpose behind building the collection was to preserve the stories behind the recipes. “It wasn't just the preservation of the recipes. It was the preservation of the women who wrote them. Our library is a tribute to home cooks and home bakers — the keepers of the house. The mothers and the wives and the sisters and the grandmothers and the aunts. They are the ones who kept the family going and the house together. And their stories are very important.” The Brass Sisters also devoted themselves to finding and preserving the recipes and stories of the women, often immigrants, who were the cooks and housekeepers for others.

Head of Special Collections Leslie McRoberts was thrilled about the gift, in particular the impact it will have on the Brass Sisters’ pre-established cookery collection. “This gift is the icing on top of an already delicious cake,” McRoberts said. “The sisters built their lives around safeguarding the legacies of women whose stories are told through the recipes collected in their library. We see our mothers, sisters, aunts and even ourselves in the margins of these cookbooks, which give us so much more than the recipes at hand. I’m so grateful that Marilynn and Sheila have chosen to place their own legacy endowment with the MSU Libraries so we can continue to both preserve and make available these stories for generations to come.”

According to Marilynn Brass, the sisters were collecting cookbooks up until Sheila’s passing from Alzheimer’s disease in 2022. Brass said that the sisters have always been careful planners, and that in the two years she cared for her, Sheila remained aware of the arrangements being made for the sisters’ estate. Marilynn recalled the decision-making process behind the sisters’ choice to place not only their collection but also their estate with MSU Libraries.

“We had our choice of a lot of different universities and organizations. We talked at length about whom we wanted to get our library, and Keith Arbour, the historian who did our catalog, introduced us to Michigan State University and the culinary collections there. And it just seemed like a good fit. Everyone was very respectful of the collection, and it just made us feel that it was the next step. And we felt that we were part of something. And that we wouldn't be the last ones to see that collection, but that we were transferring the responsibility to Michigan State University, and they were up to it. Because, you know, we were caretakers. In essence, Michigan State University took over the role. And that was good because you get to a certain age, and you have to think ahead. Sheila and I always thought ahead. And this is what we wanted. And Michigan State University was the institution that we wanted.”

Patrons can access the Sheila and Marilynn Brass Culinary Collection and other Murray & Hong Special Collections materials in the MSU Libraries’ Reading Room by appointment here.