BY ALAN BURKE
---- — PEABODY — At 89, when Doris (Silva) Brown Spacer cooks — she cooks.
She remembers providing Portuguese sweetbread at her son’s school event, so much bread she brought it in a giant plastic bag.
“He got two girls to help carry it,” she says. “Girls. They looked like Sumo wrestlers. They could have carried him.”
None of the bread was wasted. It seldom is when Doris cooks.
“I love bread,” she says. In fact, Brown (the name she prefers to go by) helped put her kids through school selling sweetbread. Her reputation was spread by word of mouth; a local congressman periodically filled a suitcase with her sweetbread to bring to Washington. And bread is only the appetizer on her menu.
Brown’s culinary skills and sharp wit will be on the front burner as she appears on October 23 at 8 p.m. on the Cooking Channel’s “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” with host Mo Rocca. The pair will cook Portuguese roast pork, green beans and doughnuts, which are among the 140 recipes featured in the cookbook Doris co-wrote with daughter Leslie Breen of Swampscott, “Cooking with Doris B.”
Over the last several days, she’s had TV and news people coming to the house where she’s lived all her life.
“I feel like Marilyn Monroe except she’s dead,” Brown cracks. Finally, “The big shot came.” That would be Rocca, a CBS commentator.
“He’s a young man. We went dancing,” Brown says. Brown dances often at senior centers. “He doesn’t know how to dance,” she laments.
To hear her tell it, Doris didn’t know how to restrain her outspoken ways. “This is a very good meal,” Rocca told her softly as cameras recorded.
Even more softly, she replied, “I know. But there’s a lot of salt.”
“We don’t talk about the salt,” Rocca cautioned.
“I know. But there is a lot of salt.” she said.
Some things were cooked ahead. “This is the make-believe part,” she told Rocca.
Brown’s affinity for food is flavored by growing up in a Peabody with ethnic treats on every corner. Her parents brought the foods of the Portuguese Azores. When she visited neighbors, there were Polish, Greek and Italian dishes.
“I can cook every nationality,” Brown says.
In a different era, she might have been a chef. But Brown graduated during World War II.
“I became Rosie the Riveter,” she says. She performed a careful, life-and-death job, attaching wires to tiny lights meant for fighter planes. “I wanted to go to the beach, but I had to work.”
Postwar, she attended Bryant and Stratton business school and became an accountant.
“I worked as a bookkeeper,” she says.
That included a stint at Smidt Leather and work at an elegant Salem dress shop, where she annoyed management by taking photos of dresses and going home to make near-perfect copies for herself. “When you’ve got no money, you’ve got to be good at everything. Cooking. Sewing,” she says.
She married and had three children, including one adoption and two whose appearance after 30 was a happy surprise.
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant,” she says.
A broken marriage left her on her own, which provided daughter Breen with material for her book, “Growing Up with Doris and Still Alive to Tell the Tale.” It tells of mom “single-handedly raising her three children and feeding them on a shoestring budget.”
(Both the book and cookbook are available at www.cookingwithdorisb.com with some profits going to the Danvers Food Pantry.)
Food led the way to Brown’s second marriage. Her future husband came for a night on the town and got delayed.
“I served him roast pork marinated with wine and garlic and herbs. He never left the damned table until it was finished,” she says.
One of six grandchildren, Kasey Brown, is an aspiring actress. She got Doris her TV break after seeing a notice online for cooks to appear on “My Grandmother’s Ravioli,” a program dedicated to the traditional foods created by grandmothers.
Just as Beethoven went deaf, medications have curbed this food maestro’s appetite. Yet, Brown continues to cook and can still appreciate the results.
“I can eat it once,” she says. Love of good food, she believes, is a key to the love of life.