Before I moved to San Francisco, I knew surprisingly little about the City, which suited me fine, since I have never felt the need for too much advanced knowledge about anything. And I had no desire to trade the fantasy I had of Carol Doda and a chorus of flannel-clad gay men singing the Rice-a-roni jingle from a cable car as it crested some hill or other with the reality of some homeless guy defecating in front of me on Capp Street as he ranted incoherently.
Once moved, I had a formulated a shortlist of what I thought were very San Francisco-y things I needed to experience. One: Visit Alcatraz, no matter how touristy. That I finally accomplished this year. Two: Read Tales of the City by Armistad Maupin. Still haven't gotten around to it, much to my friend Bill's irritation. Three: oh, there were lots of things on that list, but way down near the bottom of my to-dos was eating a dish called Hangtown Fry. Why? I think I read about it in a cookbook somewhere at some point and I got it into my head that it was more ur-San Francisco that sourdough bread. So I was wrong. But not by much. The Hangtown Fry is a very old school San Francisco dish-- take a look at the Tadich Grill menu if you don't believe me, but the hangtown in question was not, as I had hoped, our City-by-the-currently oil- streaked-Bay. That particular honor goes to Placerville, a charming little town in the Sierra Foothills formerly fraught with multiple crises of identity.
Originally called Dry Diggins by the miners who carted their dry soil from there to the river to wash out the gold, Placerville's second sobriquet was collected in a pique of impromptu vigilante justice. Tired of being robbed of their hard-earned gold at knife point, some merchants and miners of the area suggested making human swings out of three men accused of the crime. Since this was the first such recorded hanging in the Mother Lode area, the camp was rechristened "Hangtown", leaving its old name to blow away like so much dust. As the town grew up and struggled to become respectable, the best of their marketing minds came up with the more child and virgin-friendly "Placerville." I suppose they could have done worse.
It was at some point in the early life of Dry Diggins/Hangtown/Placerville that, as legend has it, a newly rich gold miner walked into the restaurant of the El Dorado Hotel and demanded the most expensive meal that could be had there, mumbling something about being tired of eating nothing but canned beans. What he was given was a scramble of eggs, oysters, and bacon. Perhaps the chef misunderstood him and made the richest meal he could think of rather than the most expensive. Whatever the case, he was charged a princely sum since, it was explained, "Canned oysters had to be shipped in from Boston, eggs were as scarce as pig feathers, and bacon was just as expensive." Of course, as read at Gold Rush Chronicles, "Eggs, bacon, and oysters were the only ingredients the chef could find. Chickens were portable so the camp had eggs early on, oysters were prolific in San Francisco Bay at the time, and bacon would keep without refrigeration." I somehow doubt this miner held onto his money for very long. At least he got a good meal.