Re-Visiting the Hangtown Fry, the Dish That Epitomizes Gold Rush California

hangtown fry Brendas.jpg
Anna Roth
The excellent Hangtown Fry at Brenda's French Soul Food.
I woke up this morning with Hangtown Fry on the brain. On the way to and from Tahoe last weekend I passed through the original Hangtown, now called Placerville (the town's first name came from the dubious distinction of being the first spot in Gold Country to hang some desperadoes, and when it incorporated in 1854 the residents opted for a more genteel moniker). It reminded me of the dish that still bears the Old West name.

Legend has it that a prospector came into the now-defunct El Dorado Hotel one day hot off a lucky strike and asked for the most expensive meal in the house, which the cook obligingly made from the priciest ingredients in the kitchen: eggs (which had to be transported overland from San Francisco), oysters (which had to be packed in ice and shipped every day from San Francisco Bay), and bacon (which was shipped by sea from back East). The resulting concoction became known as the Hangtown Fry, and is one of the first culinary inventions of U.S.-owned California.

But truth be told, though I've spent my entire life in the West I've never eaten this particular dish -- something about the texture of cooked oysters and eggs always turned me off. I was determined to change all that this morning.

See also:
- Step Inside S.F.'s Oldest Restaurants With New Interactive Book
- New Cookbook Explores California's Culinary Past
- The 20 Most Significant Food Inventions in History

Some Yelping led me to Brenda's, and since that venerable soul food institution traffics in deliciousness, I figured the Hangtown Fry there was a good place to start. And man, I have been missing out all these years! All my fears about slimy oysters proved groundless. Smoky, porky bacon was the dominant flavor, and the oysters had been breaded and fried before being added to the omelet so they were succulent and meaty. Slices of green onion and a generous hand with black pepper rounded everything out. I surprised myself by eating the whole thing.

For a dish that started as something of a dare, it's an impressively good-tasting mixture that has deep roots in California history. Next on my list is the version at the Tadich Grill, which, according to the restaurant's website, has been on the menu since the Gold Rush.

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Robert la Bohème

Yes, often. And almost always at Cape Fear Cafe in Duncans Mills.

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