Hangtown Fry is a local legend, but doesn’t pass the smell test

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — The signature dish at the Buttercup Pantry comes with a disclaimer on the menu.


Feeling hungry? Or, more likely, curious and masochistic? Order the $15.99 Hangtown Fry, the roughly 170-year-old omelet, of sorts, that shares a moniker with this old Gold Rush hamlet where it was conjured up.

The Hangtown Fry is a glop of shiny brown oysters, bacon and scrambled eggs. At the Buttercup Pantry — the only joint in town where it’s regularly served — you can smell it before you see it. Fishy, with a hint of cheese.

“Oh, it’s disgusting,” said Robert Huston, the restaurant’s owner. “When it comes out of the cooks’ window over there, it smells.”

His staff thinks it’s gross. One waitress calls it the Booger Surprise.

But Placerville is known as Old Hangtown, and this is its namesake dish. Its origin story is proudly displayed on the city’s official website. So somebody’s got to keep it on the menu, Huston said.

An old yellow car parked in front of Huston’s restaurant bears the words “Buttercup Pantry Restaurant: Home of the Hangtown Fry.” About the only people who order it, Huston said, are tourists and folks with hangovers coming back from Lake Tahoe.

The legend of the Hangtown Fry, which is served in places all along the Pacific Coast, goes something like this: In 1849, or thereabouts, a prospector staggered into the El Dorado Saloon in Old Hangtown’s Cary House Hotel, saying he’d struck it rich, said Joyce Thompson, a longtime volunteer researcher at the El Dorado County Historical Museum.

He flung his gold onto the bar and demanded the “finest and most expensive” dinner in the house. The cook told him the priciest items on the menu were eggs, bacon and oysters.

“You have to understand how hard it was to make this dish,” Huston said.

The eggs were seagull eggs from the Farallon Islands off San Francisco that had to be carefully wrapped during the long trek from the coast. The oysters, also from the Bay Area, had to be packed in ice, which was a luxury in an era before refrigerators. The bacon was shipped from Europe, Huston said.

“They took those ingredients, made a big, ol’ dish and scrambled them together,” Huston said.

Like most old stories around here, there are a few different tellings of how the Hangtown Fry came to be. Another version has it that the dish was a last meal for a miner who was sentenced to hang. Another says it was made by a prospector trying to cook in the dark.

Thompson said the wealthy-prospector story is the most widely accepted.

“It was probably handed down,” she said of the tale. “The guy made a lot of money. It sounds reasonable. As for the other ones, I don’t know.”

In present-day Placerville, rugged Old West legends abound.

The bustling mother lode town was initially called Dry Diggins because miners had to haul dry soil down to running water to separate the gold. It quickly became known as Hangtown because so many murderers and robbers were hanged there.

A plaque on Main Street is dedicated to Joseph Staples, an El Dorado County deputy sheriff who in 1864 chased a group of outlaws who robbed two stagecoaches at gunpoint, saying they were trying to raise money for the Confederacy.

Staples, the story has it, died in a shootout with the bandits. One of the suspects was captured and hanged.

These days, a mannequin wearing suspenders and a red handkerchief swings from a noose outside an old Main Street building — California Historic Landmark No. 141 — called the Hangman’s Tree Historic Spot. The stump of a tree used for hangings is in the building’s basement.

Like all the local legends, the Hangtown Fry endures. Huston, who loves California history, said the dish has drawn documentarians and camera crews from television food and history channels to the Buttercup Pantry, a cozy restaurant filled with wooden booths and antiques.

In the 33 years Huston has owned the Buttercup, he’s never tried the Hangtown Fry. The tourists keep ordering it. And there are even a few people who swear it’s delicious and keep coming back for it.

“It’s disgusting,” he repeated. “Why anybody would order it, I don’t know.”

Cooks there, he said, “try to make it palatable” by adding onions and jack cheese amid the smoked bacon and canned oysters.

When a Los Angeles Times reporter ordered the dish on a recent morning, waitress Karlyn Livingston raised an eyebrow and asked, “You know it has oysters, right?”

Livingston, a waitress at the Buttercup for more than 30 years, hates the smell of the canned oysters.

“Some are more stinky than others,” she said. “Each can’s different.”

Has she ever tasted it? No way.

Longtime waitress Natalie Neilsen hasn’t tried it, either. When she has to serve it, she does so with her arm outstretched, trying to avoid the fishy fumes.

What about cook Steve Hernandez, who’s been working at the restaurant for more than 15 years? Nope, hasn’t tasted it. But after making it so many times over the years, he’s starting to get a little curious and might take a nibble eventually.

“I personally don’t mind making it, but other cooks find it kind of funny,” he said. “The smell kind of puts people off. It’s not for everybody. But people eat Limburger cheese and blue cheese.”

Erica Huston, a cashier and Robert Huston’s daughter, shook her head when asked if she’d ever sampled the legendary meal.

“I just — no.”

Does she ever catch a whiff of it?

“Oh, hell yes,” she said. “I smell it cooking. I’ve seen it.”

She shuddered.

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