History Stories

The colorful Gold Rush era—roughly 1848 to 1870—offers a mine of riches when it comes to all kinds of history, including some entertaining tales of food and drink. Mark Twain, for example, demonstrated a prodigious capacity for eating oysters and drinking hard liquor, feats respected by many in San Francisco during his stay there. One of my favorite stories, concerning the origins of a picturesquely named omelet called the Hangtown Fry, actually boasts a couple versions. In “Twain’s Feast,” one of my favorite books for 2012, author Anthony Beahr serves up the two competing origins of the Hangtown Fry.

Both stories take place in Hangtown, California, which received its name after three desperadoes met their fate on the scaffold there in the late 1840s. In one account, a newly wealthy miner arrives in Hangtown and demands the most expensive meal available. In those early days of the Gold Rush, hen’s eggs were as rare as hen’s teeth, a scarce luxury and prohibitively expensive. Oysters, shipped inland on ice and uphill from the coast, cost a pretty penny too, perhaps as much as the eggs. A local cook created an omelet bulging with oysters, which cost the successful miner some of his newfound gold.

The other folk origin for Hangtown Fry describes a condemned man’s request for his last meal. Wanting to postpone his encounter with the hangman’s noose for as long as possible, he asked for a dish whose ingredients he knew would take several days to arrive, since the hen’s eggs and oysters had to travel 130 miles overland from San Francisco to Hangtown.

Whatever story you prefer, a Hangtown Fry still describes an oyster-filled omelet with bacon strips resting like oars across the top. You can find it on quite a few menus in El Dorado County, home of the original Hangtown (now known as the more respectable Placerville). In San Francisco, the 160-year-old Tadich Grill serves Hangtown Fry at their “new” location (since 1967) on California Street, and that’s where I first had a taste of this sumptuous Gold Rush dish.

You can make Hangtown Fry at home if you have access to fresh oysters. Eat it slowly, savoring every morsel, and postpone all sorts of things—email, the gym, even a trip to the scaffold.

A word of warning to the meticulous researcher: I can’t find a documented source on Hangtown Fry prior to the 20th century. Too bad. Those two origins are my stories, and I’m sticking to them.

Tadich Grill in San Francisco serves the dish with bacon and green onions crumbled into the omelet, along with breaded, panfried oysters, which is more traditional. In my version, I don’t bread the oysters at all, just warm them through, which makes it a lighter dish. Even if I were a condemned desperado, I think I’d like my oysters prepared very simply—although the breading and frying does take longer!

If you’ve never made an omelet before, go online and watch a how-to video, or ask someone to show you. Generally speaking, a bad-looking omelet tastes fine unless you’ve let it burn. For a two-egg omelet, you’ll need an eight- or 10-inch pan.

Servings: 1 (but can be doubled)

2 strips bacon (I get thick-sliced bacon from the butcher. It’s often oddly shaped, but it tastes terrific and it’s not loaded with nitrates. This lets me pretend that it’s healthy.)
3-4 raw oysters, shucked and drained (I’m not much on shucking my own oysters, so I ask the nice guys at my neighborhood fish store to do it for me. Whether you buy your oysters at the fishmongers or at your supermarket, make sure they are fresh. For this recipe, I used our local Long Island Peconic oysters, which are small and sweet, tasting like an ocean breeze at high tide.)
Cooking spray or 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 pinch dried thyme
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Hot sauce (optional)
1 slice whole grain or sourdough bread for toast

In a seasoned cast iron frying pan or a Teflon pan, place your raw bacon strips and fry over medium-low heat until crispy. Always start bacon in an unheated pan. Keep an eye on the bacon so it doesn’t burn. You want the fat to be rendered and the meat browned. Remove strips and drain on a paper towel. Pour off most of the fat in the pan, leaving just a little for flavor. Generously spray the pan with cooking spray, or add the butter, to keep the surface well-lubricated.

Gently place the oysters in the pan over medium-low heat. Cook about 1 minute on each side. You are essentially warming them through. Do not overcook or they may get rubbery and the taste changes. They may lose a little liquid as they cook, which is fine. Remove oysters from pan and put on a small dish to reserve.

Preheat pan to medium-high. Sprinkle thyme, salt and pepper into the eggs. Pour egg mixture into the hot pan and distribute evenly by swirling the pan a little. Lift the cooked edges of the omelet up with a spatula so that the raw egg in the center can run underneath and cook.

Place the oysters down the middle of the omelet. With a spatula, loosen the one side of the eggs from the pan edge. (You may add more butter or cooking spray to the bottom of the pan as needed to help make this process easier.) Gently fold this side over the middle of the omelet. Repeat with the second side. Slide and lift omelet off the pan and place on a warm plate.

Place the two strips of bacon on the omelet, like oars on a boat. Serve with toast and hot sauce if you like that. If your omelet is a mess, the toast and bacon can make it look a lot better.

The omelet makes a meal in itself, but from my point of view all this protein cries out for vegetables. Try a side salad of baby spinach, arugula and some chopped apple, tossed with a lemony vinaigrette.

Dr. Libby O’Connell is HISTORY’s chief historian.

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