There are two questions people always ask me about M.F.K. Fisher. The first: Did you ever meet her? The second: Was she a good cook?
Unfortunately, I discovered legendary food writer M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher’s work in 2003, nearly a decade after her death. More than a cook she was an eater, a devotee of the table who adored sitting down to long, simple meals.
Rather than cooking elaborate menus, she often composed her meals based on foods that could be sourced from her own backyard. Produce from the farmer’s market. Wine from Napa and Sonoma Vineyards. Olives and olive oil from nearby trees. Meats, breads, and other artisan products that reminded her of her life in France, but that were sourced from spots near her Northern California home.
Later in life she began keeping what she called “Table Books” where she jotted down what she ate, who she ate with, and notable musings. Here’s an example from May 16, 1965:
Teleme jack cheese
Sherry-vermouth- etc., wine brought, coffee
Before lunch she set out the tarts; the little tomatoes went into a black bowl from Provence, and the strawberries and powdered sugar into a green one. Her guests were old friends, their son, and his new wife. They brought two bottles of Portuguese Rosé to drink outside while eating lunch.
In her journal Fisher wrote: “we eat and talk and it is very pleasant… the anchovy tart is too salty for my taste, perhaps it is because I added sliced Greek olives to it?”
This is characteristic Fisher: simple food, simple wine, fantastic company. There’s a deep dedication to the table and a commitment to putting the very best things on it.
This is the way I like to eat too, and it’s the reason why even though I never actually met Fisher, I often feel like she’s nearby. She’s the voice that tells me to fuss just a little less with the vegetables, to put out a few hunks of cheese drizzled with honey for dessert instead of making a towering cake, and to sit down with a cold glass of wine instead of worrying about what to make for dinner.
She’s also the one who told me maybe I should leave the olives out of this recipe for an anchovy-onion tart, but I’ll leave that up to you.
Also known as Pissaladière, this tart incorporates the classically French combination of onions, olives, and anchovy to deliciously savory results. It’s sure to have been a favorite of M.F.K. Fisher, who spent time in Southern France. This version is made with layers of filo dough and is flakey but substantial enough to eat by hand. Served with a big green salad, it is perfect for a laid-back lunch or light dinner. Honor M.F.K. Fisher by being sure to serve this with a glass of wine.
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme
7 sheets filo dough, thawed
1/3 cup nicoise olives
8-12 anchovy fillets
In a large pot over medium heat, add olive oil. Add onions and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally until very soft, about 30 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high. Add sugar, red wine vinegar, thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, till caramelized, about 12-15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper and brush lightly with olive oil. Working quickly, lay one sheet filo on paper and brush very lightly with olive oil. Repeat five more times, pressing sheets of filo together firmly so that each one sticks to the sheet below. Scatter onion mixture across filo, leaving a quarter-inch border around the edge. Arrange olives and anchovy filets over the onions. Brush crust with olive oil and bake until filo is golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, then cut into eight substantial squares. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Anne Zimmerman’s first book, "An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher", is the product of extensive research at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. She has compiled and introduced two subsequent collections of Fisher’s work: "Love In A Dish and Other Culinary Delights", and "Wine Is Life: M.F.K. Fisher’s Musings on Wine". She has written for Culinate, The Kitchn, Tasting Table, Diner’s Journal, Gayot, and is the San Francisco Editor for Blackboard Eats. More of her writing can be found on her author website and blog, Poetic Appetite.