Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Hangtown Fry

Myth and Lore. That's what whets my appetite. I had never heard of the Hangtown Fry until I read the recipe in George Herter's Bull Cook. Say what you like about Herter, he often captured what was missing in every other cookbook.

I'm going to quote the recipe and auxiliary text in full.


In the eighteen hundreds San Francisco was quite a town. The Barbary Coast which was a section of saloons and houses of prostitution, was known all world over as second only to similar areas in Rio and Hong Kong. It catered to sailors who came to haul California’s grain to Europe. In places like Little Egypt and many others on the Barbary Coast if a sailor walked into a saloon and didn’t see three or four nude  women lounging around he got mad and went to a more up to date spot. As time went on the reformers hung so many of the Barbary Coast’s citizens that San Francisco gained the name of Hang Town.

In 1853 a man named Parker opened a saloon called Parker’s Bank Exchange in the Montgomery Block, a famous building built by General Halleck. Parker invented and served a dish called Hangtown Fry. Its fame spread all over San Francisco and the surrounding areas. A few drinks and a Hangtown Fry was and is considered a gentlemen’s evening.

The original Hangtown Fry was made like this. This recipe is for two healthy people. At today’s prices [1960--MP] it costs 46¢ a serving to make.

2 small fresh oysters or 12 canned oysters.
Eight eggs.
One onion about two inches in diameter.
One clove of garlic.
Six ounces Of ham or a half can of Spam or similar product.
Celery salt.
Hot pepper sauce or Tobasco sauce.

Take a large bowl and break eight eggs into the bowl. Take one onion about two inches in diameter and grate into the bowl. Add six ounces of finely chopped up ham or Spam. Mix well together. Dip 12 oysters into cracker crumbs and add the oysters to the mixture. Take a large frying pan and put a heaping tablespoon of butter into it and melt it. Add the egg mixture, being sure to spread out the oysters so that they are evenly spaced out in the mixture. On a slow heat fry until the eggs are done on both sides. Remove and place on a plate. Salt all over with celery salt. Take hot pepper sauce or Tobasco sauce and put six drops on a plate. take your finger and dip it into the sauce and rub a little on one side of each oyster. Serve at once. This is the finest of eating for those who
like seafood.

Today the real Hangtown Fry is no longer to be found in San Francisco or anywhere else. It still is on the menus but when you get it you get nothing but an egg omelet with oysters and a couple of pieces of bacon across the top. The real Hangtown Fry is too slow to make and too expensive for our modern day restaurants.

Duncan Nicol took over the Parker’s Bank Exchange Saloon from Parker and Nicols invented the Pisco Punch, the best drink that ever came from California. It was made as follows:

Two jiggers of Pisco, 2 jiggers of white grape juice, 2 teaspoonfuls of pineapple juice, 1 teaspoon full of Pernod.

Pisco was a brandy imported from Peru, in those days made from grapes grown on volcanic soil. It had a very mild, slightly sweet flavor. Christian Brothers Brandy made in Napa Valley, California today by the monks is as good as Peru Pisco or even much better in most cases and makes the finest Pisco Punch. [Herter must not have tasted Pisco Brandy--MP]

Thomas W. Knox wrote this about Pisco Punch:

‘The second glass was sufficient, and I felt that I could face smallpox, all the fevers known to the faculty, and the Asiatic cholera, if need be.’

Rudyard Kipling wrote this about Pisco Punch:

‘I have a theory it is compounded of the shavings of cherubs’ wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and fragments of the lost epics of dead masters.’

Today if you want a real Pisco Punch or Hangtown Fry the only way you will get them is to make them for yourself in your home.

One thing about Pisco Punch to remember is that it has no alcohol or liquor taste whatsoever. Don’t let it fool you, two is enough for any one. In fact Duncan Nicol only allowed two at a time to a customer. Even when John Mackay Multi-Millionaire and the richest man in North America at the time, came into his saloon and had two Pisco Punches he left the saloon and walked around the block and re-entered the saloon so that he could qualify as a new customer and have two more Pisco Punches.”

My purpose in reproducing this old recipe, is that the Olympia Oyster has made a . . . almost a comeback. Andrew Beahrs, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine says that Olympia Oyster has made a comeback. But, unless you are in Oregon or Washington, I believe you won't find them at your fish monger. The author talks about the "coppery note on the palate" and I would describe that as a tincture of iodine. You don't really taste the metal or chemical. But it's there. In a good way. Full Disclosure: I've not had an Olympia Oyster, I have had a Dublin Bay oyster. It was on the plate with my Steak and Kidney Pie dish at Rules Restaurant in London. It had a distinct metallic taste, yet so ephemeral as to be pleasant on the tongue. Rules put one oyster on the side of the plate. Their style. I believe it and more should have been cooked in the pie. That's another post.

I have made myself a Hangtown Fry for dinner with fresh shucked oysters. Even with ordinary oysters it's a joy to eat. And now I've made myself hungry.