May 25, 2007
More Hope for the Hangtown Fry

More evidence has surfaced to indicate that we could be on the verge of revived diner interest in the Hangtown Fry. Though no restaurant has stepped up to announce that it is adding this Gold Rush classic to its menu, the newly published "The Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $19.95, 168 pages) includes a recipe adapted from Joseph R. Conlin's book "Bacon, Beans, and Gallantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier."

Conlin, who wrote the book as a professor of history at California State University, Chico, has taken the most scholarly approach to trying to understand the creation of the Hangtown Fry, which basically is an oyster omelet. Much folklore surrounds the origin of the Hangtown Fry, but Conlin concluded that it probably began at Cary House, a Placerville hotel and restaurant in the days when Placerville was known as Hangtown. A prospector who just had struck gold probably asked the cook at Cary House to whip up something special for his celebratory meal. The cook surely was Chinese, concluded Conlin, for the Hangtown Fry is nothing but a rich variation of the Cantonese staple egg foo yung, and most Chinese in the diggings were from Canton.

Inspired by Conlin's research, Jairemarie Pomo, author of "The Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook," came up with this sumptuous and spicy take on the Hangtown Fry, which just might inspire some local restaurant chef to add the state's most historic dish to his or her menu:

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
12 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 dozen 3- to 4-inch-long Pacific or Eastern oysters, shucked and drained
1/4 cup light cream or half-and-half
8 slices bacon, fried crisp and drained well
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
Sriracha sauce or other hot sauce for serving

Put the bread crumbs in a shallow dish. In another shallow dish, beat 2 of the eggs with the salt and pepper. Put the cornmeal in another shallow dish. One at a time, coat the oysters first in the bread crumbs, then the beaten eggs, then the cornmeal.

In a large saute pan or skillet, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat until fragrant and bubbly. Cook the oysters about 1 minute on each side, just until the coating is light golden brown and the oysters feel springy when touched. Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer the oysters to a plate.

In a medium bowl, beat the remaining 10 eggs with the cream or half-and-half, a pinch of salt, and a dash of pepper just until blended. Scrape the browned bits from the pan and add the remaining 1/4 cup butter. Melt over medium-high heat just until foamy. Reduce the heat to medium-low.

Place 2 slices of bacon side by side in the pan. Pour about 1/3 cup of the egg mixture over the bacon to cover. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the onion on top of the eggs. Place 3 oysters on top of the eggs and pour 1/3 cup of the eggs over them. Cook until the eggs are set, about 1 minute. Turn and cook another minute or so until the omelet is cooked through but not browned. Repeat to make a total of 4 omelets, keeping the cooked omelets warm in a low oven as you cook the rest. Serve immediately, with the hot sauce alongside.

Serves 4 as a main course.

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