Here is the first of two tales from my favorite city, San Francisco, a place where I lived for fifteen years. This first tale is a humorous one, befitting the the spirit of the Twelve Days of Christmas… It’s about death and life, food and festivity, and a rip-roaring tall tale from the California Gold Rush.
The Original Hangtown Fry
Listen to the Story Here:
It all started in the Sierra Nevada mountains with the gold rush in 1848. Before the year was out, 10,000 people arrived to pan for gold. But it was the next year that gave the name “49ers” to the immigrants. In 1849, more than 90,000 gold-seekers arrived from across the globe.
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas one mining camp was named Old Dry Dirt since the diggings there had to be hauled away to a river to wash away the dirt and reveal the gold dust and gold nuggets. In Old Dry Dirt there were tents and hastily slapped together shacks. And in the center of the rowdy camp was the Eldorado Hotel. It served mostly whiskey and was an arena for gambling and endless bloody brawls. Across from the Eldorado Hotel was an ancient California oak with its branches stretching out in all directions.
One day, a man named Lopez won a good deal of money gambling at cards in the Eldorado. After leaving, Lopez was robbed by three men. But he returned to the hotel, organized a posse, and tracked down the three desperadoes. Brought back to Old Dry Dirt, a trial was held. And it was discovered that these three were the same men who had recently murdered a 49er nearby on the Stanislaus River. The trial took only thirty minutes.
The desperadoes were each hanged from the great oak and left there to remind other thieves and murderers of their fate in the little mining camp. But just to be sure that everyone got message, the 49ers changed the name of their camp. Old Dry Dirt became Hangtown. And so it remained until it was given the more respectible name of Placerville a three years later.
A short while after the hangings, a prospector excitedly stormed into the Eldorado, shouting he had struck it rich. He went straight to the hotel bar, opened his pouch, an emptied a good amount of gold nuggets and gold dust right in front of the bartender. The card games stopped, chatter turned into silence, and everyone gathered around the smiling and laughing prospector.
“I’ve struck it rich. My fortune has changed. And now I am going to celebrate.”
The Bartender asked, “A shot of whiskey, then?”
“Whisky? Hell no,” said the Prospector. “For months I been eatin’ beans out a can, and bakin’ sourdough o’er my campfire. Tonight I’m hav’n myself a real honest-to-goodness meal. Not just some grub, but what they call a feast. Yes, sir-ee, a real feast. And I got the gold to pay for it.”
And so the Bartender called the Cook out of the kitchen. The Prospector repeated his story and added, “Now what kind of feast can you cook up for me? I mean, the best food. The very best.”
The Cook glanced down at the gold, and his eyes widened. “Well, it will cost you...”
“I know that. But what kind of food do you have? You know, Cookie, the kind of food fit for a rich man... a major general... a president... even a king?”
The Cook knew he needed to talk respectfully to a man who thought himself equal to presidents and kings. Even if his shirt was torn, his trousers dirty, his hair tangled, and his face unshaven for months.”
“Well, Sir,” the Cook began, “We just got some large fresh eggs clear up from Frisco. But they ain’t cheap. Had to pack them carefully in crates stuffed with straw so they don’t break. Then ferry across the Bay and up the Sacramento River. Then unload them from the boat and hoist them up into the delivery wagons. Then the long drive on dirt roads across the Central Valley to the foothills of the Sierras.” Cookie paused. “Damned if half the eggs don’t break bouncing up and down over the potholes of those roads. Still, I gotta pay for each one, whole, cracked, or crushed. And it ain’t over then, no Sir, no Sir, it ain’t over then either.”
The Prospector was hanging on to every word, riding in those wagons with the eggs. Everyone that broke when they hit a pothole made the surviving eggs even more precious to him.
Cookie continued, “Then they strap the crates to donkeys who begin the long climb up those dangerous trails to Hangtown. Of course, sometimes the straps slip and the crates crash to the ground. I gotta pay for them eggs too.”
The Prospector now imaged the few surviving eggs glowing golden like precious jewels. He turned to the Bartender and said, “Gimme that whiskey before all those damned eggs break.”
The Bartender pushed the shot glass just to the side of some of the gold dust on the bar. With his forefinger he pulled a bit of the dust towards himself before the Prospector could blurt out. “Two whiskeys. That’s enough for two shots o’ likker.” And with that, another shot was poured and placed next to the first one.
Meanwhile, Cookie continued, “And so the surviving eggs cost me dearly. Now I can cook three large eggs for you in return for...” and Cookies’s fingers pinched a spec of gold dust.
“Four eggs,” proclaimed the Prospector and Cookie nodded to agree to the larger count.
“But eggs alone ain’t no feast. What else do you got, Cookie?”
“Well, Sir, just got a slab of hardwood smoked bacon from Pennsylvania. Came by tall ship all the way around the tip of South America to Frisco. A long trip. Thousands of miles with them sailors and their captain demanding high prices. None of that cheap salt pork from Mexico... dry cured in sea salt, than covered with fresh cracked pepper from the faraway Spice Islands, and then slowly smoked... cold smoked for a long time before being wrapped and placed onboard the ship in Philly.”
The Prospector widened his nostrils as he drew in a whiff of the cold-smoked meaty bacon. “Four foot-long rashers for me. And thick, too. With long streaks of meat running from end to end of each rasher.”
Cookie slowly reached for the smallest nugget on the bar counter. But before pinching it between his finger and thumb, he glanced at the Prospector.
“That’s fair enough. But thick rashers, no skinny ones, Cookie.”
Everyone gathered around the bar was enjoying the bargaining between the Cook and the 49er. They all wondered what the next round would be like.
The Prospector was thinking aloud, “Bacon and Eggs sound real good. But that just a breakfast. I want something else that makes this a feast. A real feast. What else do you have, Cookie?”
Cookie was prepared. “Your lucky, Sir. Just today we got two barrels of oysters in their shells from Frisco Bay. The boys down there harvest them fresh and pack them in oak barrels filled with salt water. Riverboat takes them to Sacramento, a wagon to the beginning of the foothills, and then donkeys or packhorses to Hangtown.”
The 49er scratched his beard and then mumbled, “I suppose some of the barrels leak and all the little fellas in their shell die from too much air.”
Cookie answered. “Or the weather gets too hot and they spoil, or some desperadoes seize both the donkeys and the oyster-filled barrels. Almost anything can go wrong. Usually does.”
The 49er then played his hand. He pushed a larger nugget across the counter. “How many big, fat, plump oysters does this buy?”
“A dozen, and not one less.”
“A dozen? Twelves oysters?”
Now the Prospector turns to his audience and plays his final card.
“Does Cookie here bake sourdough here at the Eldorado?”
The others nodded and added, “Every day. Fresh bread every day.”
Cookie then asked, “Do you want some sourdough for your feast?’
The 49er laughed, “Damn it, Cookie, I been eatin’ my own sourdough every night for months. I don’t want to spoil my feast with neither canned beans nor sourdough...
“But I will take a dozen, a Baker’s dozen, of the oysters. 13 big fat, plump oysters, and that gold nugget is yours.”
The tavern exploded with laoghter, and the two gamblers reached out and shook hands. The deal was sealed.
Cookie the Baker went back to the kitchen and cooked up a feast. Meanwhile, the Prospector gave the Bartender another nugget and said to shouts of hurrah and applause, “A shot of whiskey for everyone here... once my Hangtown Fry is served me at my table.
Within a week the story of the Hangtown Fry had made its way to San Francisco.
Three immigrants from the Adriatic coast of Croatia -- Nikola Budrovich, Frano Kosta, and Antoni Gasparich -- opened a coffee stand on the Long Wharf in San Francisco. They served coffee and grilled fresh fish. They added the Hangtown Fry to their menu in 1849.
The New World Coffee Saloon was eventually renamed The Cold Day Restaurant in 1882 (But that is another story!) and finally The Tadich Grill in 1912. And you can go there today -- located at 240 California Street in San Francisco -- and order a a classic Hangtown Fry.
The Hangtown Fry:
copyright©2016 Robert Béla Wilhelm
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