Friday, March 4, 2011

Olive Fillet

Olive Fillet. © Ryan Schierling
At the intersection of family tradition and food culture, the occasional recipe oddity finds notable staying power. In my family that recipe is called "Olive Fillet."

Its exact origins have not been fully determined, however, we know it has been in the family since the late 1920s. Campbell's Tomato soup, although produced as early as 1899, was not available nationally until 1911. So, somewhere in this span of opportunity, the mother of my grandmother's sister-in-law, who just happened to be a hospital dietician, either created or acquired this recipe.

So, what is it, and why is it so curiously named Olive Fillet?

My dad, who has eaten a lot of Olive Fillet in his lifetime and is also a wiz at conjecture, speculates that "it may have served as an early meat alternative at an Adventist hospital." This fits because “vege-meat” products made from textured vegetable protein and soy did not become widely available until the 1930s. It would certainly make sense that in a hospital culture where a meat analog was required, this satisfying “fillet of bread" might be created as a kind of healthy entrée in place of meat.

Another clue with respect to the name may be in the physical appearance of one of these diagonally cut and baked slices. With a little imagination, the triangle of a half-sandwich begins to resemble the shape of a piece of meat – and the color and texture of the tomato mixture on top... well... it certainly won’t fool anyone, but it does bake to a dark glossy red finished serving. It is a stomach-filling addition to a dinner plate, and perhaps the name Olive Fillet offered an aire of importance people needed in a main dish at that particular time.

Which, of course, leads us to the glaring economic piece. This is a recipe that was developed shortly before the difficult years of the Great Depression and survived to be passed intact through four or five generations. Based simply on a read of the primary ingredients – eggs, white bread, condensed soup – it is almost impossible not to imagine this composition coming straight out of a Depression-Era cookbook. Olives are the most sophisticated item in the ingredient list, honored in the name, yet, even with so few actually used, they aspire to elevate.

Olives, hard-boiled eggs & Campbell's Tomato Soup. © Ryan Schierling
I haven’t eaten Olive Fillet in a couple of years, as it is usually with sufficient frequency I see it on the table at family gatherings. Until now, it has not been a family food item I have ventured to make for myself. I confess, after looking at the recipe I had to make a couple of phone calls to double check the quantities. In my mind, and memory, it seemed there should be a lot more olives. Nope, and I tip my hat to the savvy souls who knew how to make the scarce or more costly ingredients go a very long way. As odd as the ingredients and directions may have seemed, it all came together as intended.

It's a straight-forward recipe, if you dare give it a try. On the step where the onions and sage are softened in butter, I used fresh sage from our garden, and when this mixture was combined with the browned flour and finely chopped olives (before adding the milk) I have to admit it smelled pretty wonderful! The addition of the milk and chopped eggs does change it pretty radically – quite honestly, it’s not the most attractive filling I’ve ever seen, but I forged ahead.

How does it taste? Well, when you're done being quizzical, contorting your face and questioning how such a thing could even exist... it's pretty darn good! My grandmother has been making this for her family since the 1940s – without changing a thing, mind you – and no one I spoke to this week has made or knows of any alterations being made to it. That is going on 90 years of second helpings, straight off the original 1920s recipe card. That, in and of itself, I find incredibly impressive.

So, I leave you with these three things...
1. Your – quite likely – deeply furrowed brow.
2. The recipe – because deep down you're very curious to try this.
3. My wish to know of the "recipe oddity" most celebrated in your family.

Grandma says, "Use white bread." © Ryan Schierling
Olive Fillet

2 Tbsp all-purpose flour, browned
1 tsp butter
2 Tbsp onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp sage (minced, if fresh)
1 dozen black olives, finely chopped (or 1/2 small can chopped olives)
1/3 cup milk
2 hard boiled eggs, finely chopped
pinch of salt
sliced white bread
1 part condensed tomato soup
1 part canned/evaporated milk

To brown flour-put flour in dry frying pan over med low heat and stir constantly until it gradually browns.

Put butter, onion and sage into small pan and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add browned flour and chopped olives and stir. Add milk and make smooth. Add eggs, cook until flour is well done. Cool. (Filling may be made ahead and kept in refrigerator overnight.)

Spread on sliced bread, top with another slice of bread and cut "sandwich" in half corner to corner. Lay in bottom of oiled baking dish. Pour over it a thin sauce made of 1/2 tomato soup and 1/2 canned milk, covering the tops and sides. Let simmer in 350º F oven until hot and serve immediately.

Note: Grandma usually doubles this recipe. A single recipe of filling makes approximately 3 sandwiches.

Oh, and a final recommendation from my dad who would like you to know, "it's even better the second day – cold."


  1. Never,ever, has there been a more delightful leftover. This recipe ranks with french toast and stuffing in attempting to raise the stature of plain white bread.

  2. Not sure I can say I would choose it over cold pizza the next morning, but you make a strong case about the plain white bread.

    Last night's Tweet now rings with more meaning:

    "Dinner tonight: Not so much leftovers as legacy."

  3. The original recipe called for green olives and some of the family prefer the green over the black olives for flavor. Try it sometime.

  4. Interesting! I don't think I have never seen it with the green variation, but as much as this family loves green olives it comes as little surprise!

    The nearest we've come to hearing about anything resembling this recipe is from an old high school friend who had seen something similar in the form of a loaf. In his words...

    "I am not exactly sure it was the same thing completely. But it was at a potluck of course, more than once, and it had the same ingredients as far as I can tell. The bread was torn up and mixed with the filling, and the tomato soup poured over/baked with the resulting loaf. It didn't really stick together too well so I don't think whoever was making it used eggs or more oil to bind it. Just soup."


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