Hangtown Fry History:
Photo courtesy of Michael Procopio and his blog,
Food for The Thoughtless.
Hangtown fry could possibly be the first California
cuisine. It consists of fried breaded oysters, eggs, and fried bacon, cooked
together like an omelet. In the gold-mining camps of the late 1800s,
Hangtown Fry was a one-skillet meal for hungry miners who struck it rich and
had plenty of gold to spend. Live oysters would be brought to the gold
fields in barrels of sea water after being gathered in and around San
Francisco Bay. Such a meal cost approximately $6.00, a fortune in those
However it came to be,
ordering a Hangtown Fry became a mark of prosperity for gold-rich miners,
the status symbol of the day. The recipe swept the entire Northwest
Territory, from California to Seattle, in a mid-1800s. A few drinks and a Hangtown Fry were considered a gentleman's evening.
- During the late 1800s, Hangtown (known as Placerville today) was a base of
supply for the mining region in California. It was originally known as Old
Dry Diggins (it was called Dry Diggins because the miners had to cart the
dry soil down to the running water to wash out the gold), but was shortly
labeled Hangtown after three desperadoes had been hanged there on the same
day and from the same giant white oak tree. The only stump that remains of
the original tree is hidden in the cellar of a bar on Main Street in
Placerville named -quite aptly - “The Hangmans Tree."
Legend has it that the Hangtown Fry originated in the saloon of the El
Dorado Hotel, now the site of the Cary House Hotel, across the street from
the Hangman's Tree. The El Dorado Hotel burned down in one of the great
fires of 1856 that leveled most of Hangtown, which by that time had become a
growing Gold Rush city named Placerville. On the side of the El Dorado
Hotel, the large brick Cary House Hotel was built where it still stands to
this day on Placerville’s Main Street. It is interesting to note that some
say the owner of the Gary House recovered enough gold from under the
building to pay for the cost of restoration.
Mountain Democrat newspaper columnist, Doug
Noble, wrote this interesting and charming story of how the event could have
In 1849, just a short time after Old Dry
Diggins had been renamed Hangtown in honor of the recent hanging of three
desperadoes from the large oak tree on Main Street, a prospector rushed into
the saloon of the El Dorado Hotel announcing that right there in town, along
the banks of Hangtown Creek, he had struck it rich and had every reason to
celebrate. Untying his leather poke from his belt, he tossed it on the bar
where it landed heavily, spilling its shining contents of gold dust and
nuggets. Turning to the bartender he loudly demanded, "I
want you to cook me up the finest and most expensive meal in the house. I’m
a rich man and I’m going to celebrate my good luck.”
The Bartender called to the cook and relayed
the prospector’s order. The cook stopped what he was doing and came out of
the kitchen. Looking the prospector in the eye he said, “The
most expensive things on the menu are eggs, bacon and oysters. The eggs have
to be carefully packed to travel the rough road from over the coast; the
bacon comes by ship round the horn from back east; and the fresh oysters we
have to bring up each day on ice from the cold waters of San Francisco Bay.
Take your choice. I can cook you anything you want, but it will cost you
more than just a pinch of that gold dust you have there."
The prospector said, "Scramble me up a whole mess of eggs and oysters, throw in some bacon, and serve 'em
up. I'm starving. I've been living on nothing much more than canned beans
since I got to California, and at last I can afford a real meal."
The cook did just that, cooking up a full plate of the mixture. Thus the
Hangtown Fry was invented.
The Hangtown Fry is the official dish of both the city
of Placerville and the county of El Dorado. There is also a group known as
the Hangtown FRYers trying to promote the dish as the "Official Dish of the Great State of
California," according to Doug Noble. Doug said, "The state legislature is cool on the subject, as they
have no sense of humor. We actually got some support from a restaurant in
Sydney, Australia. They love Hangtown Fry."
1853 - According to George Leonard
Herter and Berthe E. Herter, from their book Bull Cook and Authentic
Historical Recipes and Practices, they wrote:
In the eighteen hundreds San Francisco
was quite a town. The Barbary Coast which was a section of saloons and
houses of prostitution, was know the world over as second only to
similary areas in Rio and Hong Kong . . . In 1853, a man named Parker
opened a saloon called Parker's Bank Exchange in the Montgomery Block. a
famous building built by General Halleck. Parker invented and served a
dish called Hangtown Fry. Its fame spread all over San Francisco and the
surrounding areas. A few drinks and a Hangtown Fry was and is considered
a gentleman's evening . . . Today the real Hangtwon Fry is no longer to
be found in San Francisco or anywhere else. It still is on the menus but
when you get it you get nothing buy an egg omelet with oysters and a
couple of pieces of bacon across the top. The real Hangtown Fry is too
slow to make and too expensive for our modern day restaurants.
Hangtown Fry Recipe I:
This recipe has been adapted from the Blue Bell Cafe (no longer in business) which was on Placerville's Main Street made
this version of the Hangtown Fry for many years.
Yields: 1 serving
Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 5 min
1 tablespoon milk or cream
3 raw shucked fresh (live) oysters*
Breading Mixture (mixture of cracker crumbs and
Vegetable Oil or butter (I like to use butter)
2 slices thick-sliced bacon
2 whole eggs
* Learn how to
How To Shuck Oysters.
Pat the shucked oysters dry with paper towels to remove moisture.
In a small bowl, beat egg with the milk or cream. Dip the oysters in the egg/milk mixture and then
the Breading Mixture.
In a frying pan, heat
the vegetable oil or butter. Add the oysters and fry approximately 30
seconds on each side or until three-fourths (3/4) cooked, remove from heat and set aside.
While frying the
oysters, fry the bacon in another skillet until just before the bacon becomes crisp.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly; set aside.
Place the bacon (like railroad tracks off-center) in a
large frying pan over low heat, pour a small amount of the beaten egg over the
top of the bacon. Place the partially cooked oysters on top of the bacon and
then pour the remaining beaten eggs over the top. Cook approximately 2
minutes or until the eggs are set (eggs are done when creamy, soft and a
bit runny; do not overcook). Then fold the omelets over the oysters.
Place a lid over it and cook just until the steam blends together all the flavors.
Makes 1 serving.
Hangtown Fry Recipe II:
This recipe is from the February 1975 Gourmet magazine.
2 tablespoons heavy
2 tablespoons bacon fat
Salt and pepper to taste
Shuck the oyster and pat them dry with paper towels.
In a small bowl, beat eggs and cream together.
In a 7-inch skillet, sauté the oysters in
bacon fat over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add eggs/cream mixture, salt, and
pepper to taste; cook the mixture over moderate heat for 2 minutes or until
the eggs are set.
Remove from heat and invert the mixture onto a
heated plate and serve it with crisply fried bacon.
Makes 1 serving.