Libby O’Connell is chief historian for the History Channel and author of several books. Her new book, The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, catalogs our edible heritage bite by bite.
She recounts the origin story of the Hangtown Fry, named after Hangtown, California which is now Placerville. According to lore, when a doomed prisoner was offered a last meal he requested two of the most expensive and hard to find ingredients: oysters and eggs. It took days for the goods to arrive from San Francisco and cost his jailers a small fortune, and though the prisoner ultimately perished the dish stuck. You can still find “Hangtown Fry” on the menu at the Tadich Grill in San Francisco today.
O’Connell shares her recipe below.
Serves 1 but can be doubled.
Tadich Grill in San Francisco serves this dish with bacon and green onions crumbled into the omelet, along with breaded, panfried oysters, which is more traditional. In my version, I warm the oysters instead of breading and frying them, which makes it a lighter dish. Even if I were a condemned desperado, I think I’d like my oysters prepared very simply—although the breading and frying does take longer!
Advice: If you have never made an omelet, I recommend going online and watching a how-to video, or asking someone to show you, because it’s not as easy as it looks. Generally speaking, a bad-looking omelet tastes fine (unless you’ve let it burn). For a two-egg omelet, you’ll need an 8- or 10- inch pan.
2 strips bacon
3 to 4 raw oysters, shucked and drained
1 pinch dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 slice whole grain or sourdough bread for toast
1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce
Place the bacon in an unheated, seasoned cast-iron frying pan or Teflon pan, and fry over medium- low heat until crispy. Keep an eye on the bacon so it doesn’t burn. You want the fat to be rendered and the meat browned. Remove the strips and drain on a paper towel. Pour off most of the fat, leaving just a little for flavor. Generously spray the pan with cooking spray, or add butter, to keep the surface well lubricated.
Gently put the oysters in the pan over medium-low heat. Cook about 1 minute on each side to warm them through. Do not overcook or they may get rubbery and the taste changes. They may lose a little liquid as they cook, which is fine. Remove oysters from pan and reserve.
Preheat pan to medium high. Sprinkle the thyme, salt, and pepper into the eggs. Pour egg mixture into the hot pan and distribute evenly by swirling the pan a little. Lift the cooked edges of the omelet with a spatula so that the raw egg in the center can run underneath and cook.
Place the oysters down the middle of the omelet. Loosen one side of the eggs from the pan edge with a spatula. Add butter or cooking spray to the bottom of the pan, as needed, to make this process easier. Gently fold the loosened side over the middle of the omelet. Repeat with the second side. Slide or lift the omelet off the pan and place on a warm plate.
Place the strips of bacon on the omelet, like oars on a boat, and serve. Accompany with toast and hot sauce, if you like that. I prefer Sriracha brand hot sauce.
If your omelet is a mess, the toast and bacon can make it look a lot better. The omelet makes a meal in itself, but from my point of view all this protein cries out for vegetables. Try a side salad of baby spinach, arugula, and some chopped apple, tossed with a lemony vinaigrette.
I get thick-sliced bacon from my butcher. This lets me pretend that it’s healthy because it’s hand-sliced, not prepackaged. I’m not much on shucking my own oysters, so I ask the nice guys at Jeff’s Seafood, my neighborhood fish store, to do it for me. Whether you buy your oysters at the fishmongers or at your supermarket, make sure they are fresh. For this recipe, I used our local Long Island Peconic oysters, which are small and sweet, tasting like an ocean breeze at high tide.