Hangtown Fry


Blue Bell Coffee Shop Placerville CA

Placerville is the county seat of El Dorado County in California, founded in the gold rush days (Sutter’s Mill in nearby Coloma sparked the goldrush in 1849.  Placerville is often referred to as Hangtown by the locals.

The place had has a lot of names. It’s original name was Dry Diggin’s , because miners would haul dirt to the stream that runs through town, to separate the gold from the soil.

(Gold is heavier than dirt… I know this because my brother had a gold mine on the middle fork of the Feather River when I was a kid, and I’d spend hours “panin’ for gold” and getting quite a sunburn in the process. I never found much, but flakes.)

Dry Diggin’s was later called Hangtown by the locals. Some say it was a nickname, others claim it was the name.  It was certainly cited by that name by various writers of the era.  Hangtown because of the numerous hanging that happened there.  As a kid I’d hear these stories, but that’s part of the mystique.Fountain & Tallman Museum, a local historical society located in a beautiful rock rubble building, known as the “Biggest Little Museum in the West” promotes a much calmer version of why hangtown was called hangtown. They attribute it to just three hangings, of three bandits on horseback that came to town, guns blazing.  Nothing about stories I heard of the demise of Bloody Dick, or the other accounts of miscreants abrupt ends

Either way, Dry Diggin’s became Hangtown, until  the local temperance league (a women’s society, who’s main goal was to limit or outlaw the consumption and production of alcohol) pushed to change the name to something more proper.

The town was was a mining hub with lodging, banking, a gold assay office (place that will verify your mineral is gold, and certify its content, so you can get a dollar value on it), a place to buy supplies, groceries, or get a drink at the local saloons.

It was named Placer -ville. Placer is what a person placing a mining claim is called.  (A  place to place a placer?).

In 1854, the town was incorporated as Placerville, and a US Post Office was established there. (There was already a Southern Pacific Railroad spur through the town.)  Nevermind that, most people still called it Hangtown.

Although, the Blue Bell Coffee Shop is credited with creating HangTown Fry, the origination story is even more goofy. The story is that a miner, recently striking it rich, came into the El Dorado Hotel Saloon demanding the “most expensive meal in town”.  (The El Dorado Hotel was the nicest hotel in town.)

Never mind that the Taddich Grill in San Francisco — the oldest operating restaurant on the West Coast, opened in 1849, has promoted this the origin of Hangtown Fry as the omelet was created during the Gold Rush, when a condemned man ordered the two most expensive items he could for his last meal: oysters and eggs.

Either way, oysters had to be expensive in the 1850’s. The oysters  came a long arduous trip for any mollusk, from the ocean. Placerville is nearly 200 miles from the nearest oyster beds. Horses go about 4 miles an hour, so would be a 4-5 day trip.  Trains could do about 78 mph, but with stops, that would be a full day away. Ice wasn’t easy to come by, so these were some rugged oysters.

Chicken eggs and bacon would have had quite the trip, as well and were high priced because demand with all the influx of miners looking to strike-it-rich flooded into the are, before any farming infrastructure set up for the Gold Rush.

AS the “TAMER” story goes, the goldminer was hungry, so he ordered the El Dorado barkeep to instruct the cook to fry up “a mess of eggs, bacon, and some oysters”.

Condemned man, nouveau riche, whatever.  There are French and Italian recipes that pre-date this which combine eggs and oysters. It’s a thoughtful combination.

The Blue Bell Coffee Shop  promoted it, and had it on the menu. It was “the thing to order” when passing through the area.  My parents always stopped there when was open (from 1930 to about 1970,). They always had Hangtown Fry.

But, my no means was it the only restaurant serving in in Northern California, although many amended the dish to add onions, bell peppers, cheese,  spices.  One recipe I found called for a Hollandaise sauce dollop on top.   <ewww>

The dish is best plain — with three ingredients: eggs, bacon and oysters.

The Blue Bell Cafe recipe (serves one)

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon milk

mix of cracker crumbs and bread crumbs

oil (optional)

3 oysters

2 slices of bacon

2 eggs, beaten lightly

Mix milk with eggs, and then put oysters into the mix.  Pull out oysters, and roll them in bread crumbs.   Set aside.  In skillet fry bacon until lightly browned (and just before its crisp). Add oil to bacon grease, if needed. Line up the bacon so that it is parallel (like two railroad tracks) and pour some of the beaten eggs over the top of the bacon, and then add oysters to bacon, and add the remaining egg. let it cook, until the bottom can be lifted and fold over, as an omelette. And cook until the center is set.  Dish up so that the bacon and is on top.

In 1975, Gourmet Magazine omitted the bacon, but left in the bacon fat. It’s tasty. (I’ve found more variations on this recipe than the original.)

1975 Gourmet Magazine Hangtown Fry

4 oysters

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 tablespoons bacon fat

salt and pepper to taste.

In a skillet, saute oysters in bacon fat. Mix eggs and cream, and pour over oysters. Cook until the eggs are set.

I know it sounds weird to have oysters with eggs, but its actually really tasty..  pairs well with some breakfast Champagne… (Mimosa or Kir). In the Goldrush days it became the mark of prosperity to order it. It was THE status symbol of the day, and considered good luck. Who doesn’t need some tasty good luck?


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