Baking With The Brass Sisters
My love affair with Cambridge began sixty-seven years ago when I was a seven-year-old living in Winthrop, a small town on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The affair began like most affairs -- I was intrigued; I was awed. This was the big city, and I was beguiled by its mystery, humor, and history-- this city where I would one day live.
Like any affair of the heart, one has to be introduced to the object of one’s desire, and I first became aware of its appeal when we visited Uncle Harry and Auntie Millie, two long-time Cantabridgians who owned and ran Harry’s Arcade and Spa on Bow Street. Harry and Millie were actually our second cousins, but because of the difference in our ages, they became our honorary uncle and aunt.
Sometimes, the events of the past can seem like a dream when remembered years later. One struggles to remember details. Sometimes, one embellishes, but this tale of my introduction to the city of my dreams remains true in every detail.
Millie and Harry lived in Cambridge for most of their married lives. First in a modest brick apartment building in Harvard Square near the trolley barn, later in two rooms on Trowbridge Street, and finally in an apartment on Harvard Street.
When Harry and Millie moved to their apartment on Harvard Street, they purchased a television set. This was the late 1940s, and the set had a 7-inch screen. My sister, Sheila, and I would sit on a footstool in front of the television set, and because we were so short, the grownups sitting on a sofa behind us could see the screen over our heads. Since we didn’t yet have a set at home in Winthrop, it was exciting to be able to watch television, another aspect that made visiting Cambridge so exciting.
Once we stayed overnight, and Sheila remembers sleeping under a down-filled coverlet, or “a featherbed,” as we used to call it. I, however, remember the aroma of a veal roast with paprika that Auntie Millie took out of the oven. This veal was a dish that could only have been made in Cambridge – tender, succulent, and slightly pink from the paprika sprinkled on its surface. The whole kitchen was filled with the wonderful warm scent of veal and paprika. It seemed to me even then, that food made in Cambridge was very different from the food made in our kitchen in Winthrop.
A love affair like any other relationship has its ups and downs, and I remember falling down the stairs on both Trowbridge Street and Harvard Street when leaving for home. The falls weren’t serious, and resulted in only skinned knees. Although I outgrew my penchant for falling down brick stairs, I still bear tiny white scars on both of my knees – a legacy of my visits to Cambridge as a young girl.
I’ve saved the best for the last -- the memories of food and fun that so represented Cambridge to me. Uncle Harry and Auntie Millie owned and operated a Cambridge landmark, Harry’s Arcade and Spa on Bow Street in Harvard Square. As a mom and pop business during the 1940s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Harvard Square, there are two adjoining streets named Bow and Arrow Streets because they are in the shape of a bow and arrow. Uncle Harry’s Arcade and Spa was a hop, skip, and a jump from the university houses where Harvard students lived. Most of the houses had names such as Dunster House, Kirkland House, and Currier House, names rich in New England history, and it was fun to think about those scions of rich Yankee families crunching their way to Harry’s Arcade for a snack and a game of pinball on snowy Cambridge evenings. Many of the Harvard students who visited Harry’s later went into the service to fight World War II.
According to The Harvard Senior Album of 1942, “As the giant elm in front of Westmorly sheds its leaves and the courtyard in front of Apthorp puts on its coat of snow, a new season dawns on Adams. The exultant cries of "pinball" echo all along windy Bow Street. Harry's Arcade Spa is filled with pinsters, fans, and shills …”
Harry’s Arcade and Spa was mainly a diner in miniature, the pinball machines tucked away in a corner, the stainless steel coffee urn and soda machines shining behind the counter. As neat and tidy as a ship’s galley, there were a few stools affixed to the floor, and the requisite napkin dispenser, sugar bowl and creamer clustered on the spotless counter. Uncle Harry wore a grey uniform jacket over his white shirt and tie, and Auntie Millie wore a smock and an apron. They were in loco parentis to a generation of Harvard students who ate at Harry’s. It was a great place to order a fried egg sandwich, which Uncle Harry made with slices from a Pullman loaf popped into an industrial toaster. A serving of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup came from a single-serving can that he heated in a saucepan over a hot plate. It was a home away from home for the students who ate there. I was fascinated by that Pullman loaf and that single serving can of soup. It seemed that everything was reduced in size to complement the miniature aspect of the place. The slices from the loaf seemed smaller to me, and the can of soup seemed too small for a serving. Years later, I became interested in dollhouses and miniatures, and I think that is why I found the scale of Harry’s so appealing.
I launched my career as a “pinster” at Harry’s, and I found that I had a certain talent for the pinball machines. Uncle Harry would donate a handful of nickels, and I’d play the flashing colorful machines wiggling my chubby hips, hugging the front of the machine as my knee socks slipped down my calves. Often, the Harvard students would look up from their own games, and would even cluster around the seven-year-old small town little girl who was winning a free game of pinball.
In thinking back to those days when we visited Cambridge, it wasn’t just the featherbed, or the veal roast or the pinball games at Harry’s Arcade and Spa, it was the feeling of being safe and loved that we remember and treasure.
Harry’s was a haven, a meeting place, and a home kitchen for those who lived in Cambridge during the turbulent war years of the 1940s and afterwards. It wasn’t just the war that determined the course of people’s lives in those days, it was the years of adjustment after the war when housing was scarce, some foods were just coming off rationing, and veterans were trying to integrate themselves back into the normal life of a college “town.” Harry’s Arcade and Spa remained a home away from home for many young people whose education had been interrupted by the war, but it was also symbolic of how the ordinary can become extraordinary for a young girl like me.
My early visits to Cambridge whetted my appetite for more. I loved the distinguished buildings with their colored domes and the worn brick sidewalks.
Cambridge continues to be the love of my life. In looking back, I realize that these memories were just a prelude to my relationship with the city of my dreams. I knew that there would be more to come – my running away from home at the age of 26 to live at the Cambridge YWCA on Temple Street during the turbulent 1960s; the grand meals at the Window Shop, Ferdinand’s, and Chez Dreyfus; the double features at the Harvard Square Theatre where I munched dark chocolate almond bark from the Brigham’s next door; visits to the Harvard Coop which years later would later offer copies of the three cookbooks that my sister and I would write, and the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the square which seemed to signify all that was glorious and joyous about my new life in Cambridge.
Marilynn and Sheila Brass are the authors of three cookbooks, Heirloom Baking, Heirloom Cooking and Baking With The Brass Sisters. They have lived in Cambridge for almost half a century. They can be reached at their website www.thebrasssisters.com.