In Search of the Gold Rush Status Meal: The Hangtown Fry
A painted wall in downtown Placerville, which was known as Old Hangtown. (Vickie Ly/KQED)
If you want to recreate the Gold Rush experience -- without all the terrible conditions -- you can pan for gold, even descend into mines. In a few places, you can even eat the most prized meal of the Gold Rush, with a kind of bizarre combination of ingredients. That’s what I went off to El Dorado County in search of: the Hangtown Fry.
I called almost all the restaurants in the town of Placerville before I struck gold at the Buttercup Pantry.
“We are the only place left that I know of that still serves the Hangtown Fry,” says Erica Houston, whose family owns the place.
“Don’t forget: there is a disclaimer," she says with a laugh. "It is eat at your own risk. If you don’t like it, you have been warned. Seriously."
It’s made of eggs, bacon -- and oysters. Houston has never tried it, but I do. And after a few bites, my biggest takeaway is that the bacon really helps the dish.
None of the restaurant staff I talked to had tried the Hangtown Fry. So why serve it?
“Because it’s cool,” says Houston. “It’s a unique piece of history we were able to recreate, because we are old Hangtown.”
To find out the history behind that name, Hangtown, I visit local historian Marilyn Ferguson at the Fountain and Tallman Museum on Main Street.
She says, for the people staking claims here in 1849, before statehood, “They had to have some kind of rule of law, some control over the bad guys: the gamblers, the robbers, those kinds of people. They didn’t fool around with them.”
So when a few men who were on the run from a murder rap robbed a guy in Placerville, they were tried and hanged. And a nickname was born.
“Hangtown is certainly an attention-getter!” says Ferguson. And not a bad name for a mining camp, right?
“That’s right," she says. "It was a deterrent.”
So what about the Hangtown Fry? Alhough Ferguson hasn’t found any firsthand accounts, it’s widely believed to have been created in 1849 or ’50.
“A miner hit it rich,” says Ferguson. “He came into the El Dorado Hotel and ordered the most expensive things they had on the menu, which turned out to be oysters, bacon and eggs.” That's because these ingredients were hard to come by.
Oysters from San Francisco Bay -- transported by horseback, on ice -- could cost $1 each. Some are even believed to have been shipped in barrels from the East Coast, around the Horn. And in those early years of the Gold Rush, there were very few farms with livestock like chickens and pigs. The Hangtown Fry denoted status.
“He was letting people know he was rich,” Ferguson says, “and he could have anything he wanted.”
The normal options were paltry. In a glass case at the museum, Ferguson points out an old bill of fare from the El Dorado Hotel in 1850 that indicated that the scale was at the end of the bar. All items had to be paid for in gold.
“There’s a menu here: They had beef, they had jackrabbit, they had grizzly bear,” says Ferguson. Grizzly bear was prepared three different ways.
When I tell that to David Hanna, general manager of San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, he laughs, “You won’t find that here! It might sell, but you won’t find that here.”
It’s a classic seafood restaurant -- think wooden booths, waiters in white jackets and three-martini lunches even today -- that began in 1849.
“Three Croatian immigrants started it off as a tent on the long wharf, serving coffee to merchant sailors as they came into the bay,” says Hanna.
Ever since the restaurant went brick and mortar over 160 years ago, it has served a Hangtown Fry. Its origin story is a little different.
“The one we tell is, it was one of the last meals that people condemned to die would order,” says Hanna. Those guys on Gold Rush death row knew they could extend their lives by requesting such hard-to-get ingredients.
He takes me into the kitchen, where cook Luis DeLeon crisps breaded oysters and bacon strips in a deep fryer, then whisks three eggs. He tosses scallions and tomatoes in a buttered pan on the stovetop, then pours the eggs over the fried bits, frittata-style.
And since I’m a believer in second chances, this dish is for me. It’s really different having those oysters deep-fried. I’d order it again.
This fall, for the first time ever, the Tadich Grill is expanding, opening a sister restaurant in Washington, D.C. On the menu? The Hangtown Fry.