Some History of the 'Hangtown Fry'
Many stories exist on how this name was acquired, the most famous story involved a colorful event that occurred in January of 1849. A gambler named Lopez gained a lot of attention for his big winnings at a local saloon. After he retired for the evening, several men tried to overpower him. Lopez fought back, and with the help of others, the robbers were captured. During their “flogging”, three of the robbers were also accused of being wanted for a murder and robbery.
With no more evidence than that, a short 30 minute trial took place and a unanimous “guilty” verdict was given. The crowd demanded that the men be sentenced to “death by hanging” and the rest was history. The famous hanging tree once stood in Elstner’s Hay Yard, next to the Jackass Inn. Today, the original stump from the old tree remains in the cellar of “The Hangman’s Tree” tavern on Historic Main Street. (Information from Placerville Historical So.)
By other accounts, there were plenty of hangings in Hangtown over gold disputes and disreputable characters, gamblers, con men taking advantage of local miners claims.
By 1850, the temperance league and a few local churches had begun to request that a more friendly name be bestowed upon the town. The name was changed in 1854 when the City of Placerville was incorporated. At its incorporation Placerville was the third largest town in California. In 1857 the county seat was then moved from Coloma to Placerville, where it remains today.
There you have it, but my own memories of moving to the Mother Lode was eating my first Hangtown Fry. It was a delightfully, greasy sandwich filled with fried onions, green peppers and oysters to which you could add steak sauce or Worcestershire and lettuce on a hard french roll. Yum. I’ve made them at home. The key is not to overcook the oysters.
But, I’ve learned since there is a legend behind the Hangtown Fry.
Legend has it that a 49′er hit a glory hole, an incredibly rich pocket of gold nuggets. He walked into the El Dorado Hotel restaurant in Hangtown, now Placerville California, and asked the waiter what was the most expensive item on the menu. The waiter answered that would be one of three things, oysters, which were tinned and shipped all the way from Boston, Bacon, which was scarce, and Eggs, which were also scarce and hard to get to the Motherlode without breaking in a bumpy stage-coach ride. The prospector answered, fix them all on one plate and bring it to me.
Another story claims it was a prisoners last dinner and he chose items hard to get to delay his hanging because it took several weeks to get oysters. Though available in San Francisco bay, they would spoil and had to come around the horn in cans. So was born the ‘Hangtown Fry’.
It was a San Francisco Restaurant that named it and kept it on their menu for 160 years. I don’t even know if you can buy one in Placerville. But, there are many variations on that dish, as omelet and a sandwich. Keeping the oysters tender. Coat them in flour, saute in butter, then pour the eggs over last. All manner of herbs can be added. And, restaurants continually refine and add to the Hangtown Fry.
There you have it folks. Enjoy.