Before I moved to San Francisco, I knew surprisingly little about the City, which suited me fine, since I have never felt the need for too much advanced knowledge about anything. And I had no desire to trade the fantasy I had of Carol Doda and a chorus of flannel-clad gay men singing the Rice-a-roni jingle from a cable car as it crested some hill or other with the reality of some homeless guy ranting, oblivious and incoherent, as he defecated in front of me on Capp Street.
Once moved, I had a formulated a shortlist of what I thought were very San Francisco-y things I needed to experience. One: visit Alcatraz, no matter how touristy. That I finally accomplished this year. Two: read Tales of the City by Armistad Maupin. Still haven’t gotten around to it, much to my friend Bill’s irritation. Three: oh, there were lots of things on that list, but way down near the bottom of my to-dos was eating a dish called Hangtown Fry. Why? I think I read about it in a cookbook somewhere at some point and I got it into my head that it was more ur-San Francisco that sourdough bread. So I was wrong. But not by much. The Hangtown Fry is a very old school San Francisco dish– take a look at the Tadich Grill menu if you don’t believe me, but the hangtown in question was not, as I had hoped, our City-by-the-currently oil- streaked-Bay. That particular honor goes to Placerville, a charming little town in the Sierra Foothills formerly fraught with multiple crises of identity.
Originally called Dry Diggins by the miners who carted their dry soil from there to the river to wash out the gold, Placerville’s second sobriquet was collected in a pique of impromptu vigilante justice. Tired of being robbed of their hard-earned gold at knife point, some merchants and miners of the area suggested making human swings out of three men accused of the crime. Since this was the first such recorded hanging in the Mother Lode area, the camp was rechristened “Hangtown”, leaving its old name to blow away like so much dust. As the town grew up and struggled to become respectable, the best of their marketing minds came up with the more child and virgin-friendly “Placerville.” They could have done worse.
It was at some point in the early life of Dry Diggins/Hangtown/Placerville that, as legend has it, a newly-rich gold miner walked into the restaurant of the El Dorado Hotel and demanded the most expensive meal that could be had there, mumbling something about being tired of eating nothing but canned beans. What he was given was a scramble of eggs, oysters, and bacon. Perhaps the chef misunderstood him and made the richest meal he could think of rather than the most expensive. Whatever the case, he was charged a princely sum since, it was explained, “Canned oysters had to be shipped in from Boston, eggs were as scarce as pig feathers, and bacon was just as expensive.” Of course, as read at Gold Rush Chronicles, “Eggs, bacon, and oysters were the only ingredients the chef could find. Chickens were portable so the camp had eggs early on, oysters were prolific in San Francisco Bay at the time, and bacon would keep without refrigeration.” I somehow doubt this miner held onto his money for very long. At least he got a good meal.
Many of the recipes I found called for the use of a non-stick pan. Since I strongly suspect the humoring chef at the El Dorado Hotel had no acquaintance with Teflon, I asked my trusty cast iron skillet to take on the job instead, to keep in the spirit of all things 49’er. Of course, it is also doubtful that he utilized a gas stove, overhead electric lighting, or an ipod. My spirit carries me only so far.
This particular recipe is an artery clogger, near as rich as anything one might care to put in one’s mouth. I decided to go for broke, otherwise, what’s the point, really? There are lighter versions of this dish, certainly, but the spirit of the thing is it’s richness. This was made at the request of a man who stumbled upon a gold strike after months of eating nothing but beans, after all. Life expectancy rates were lower then and no one knew the meaning of cholesterol. Shave a few months off your own life and try it.
3 whole hen’s eggs (if using Plover’s eggs, 4)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg
a turn or two of your pepper grinder
6 small oysters, alive and in their shells…
enough flour for dredging the shelled oysters as they lay dying
1 tablespoon of cow’s butter
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (I use the curly kind because I have finally rejected my previous rejection of it)
3 strips of thickly sliced bacon
1. Into a pan heated to medium intensity, place your bacon and fry until crispy. Remove to a paper or cotton tea towel to drain and cool. Reserve the bacon drippings.
2. Combine cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg and eggs in a bowl and beat until egg yolks are just incorporated.
3. Drop shelled (you may have to do that yourself if your mother is not available to help you) oysters into flour to coat lightly and suffocate. Tap off any excess flour.
4. With the bacon grease still hot in the skillet on mediumish heat, introduce the oysters to the fat and brown on each side. About 45 seconds to one minute per hemisphere. Do not overcook, since a certain degree of juicy sweetness is desired of them. Remove from heat onto paper or other-materialed towel.
5. If the bacon grease is hissing and spitting at you, I find the best way to deal with such rudeness is to ignore it. Return to it once it has cooled down sufficiently to introduce it to its new fat friend, butter.
6. Add egg mixture to the butter/grease melange and treat suitably, as one might treat an omelet, say. When half way cooked through, crumble in some of the bacon, add the oysters, and cook the other half of the way.
7. Remove your newly developed Hangtown Fry to some sort of plate and have at it while it is still warm.