Boring diet gave miners appetite for dining out

By Mike Dunne
Bee Food Editor
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Mark Twain wrote of the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County, not the celebrated sauteed frog legs.

Maybe his timing was off. Such delicacies weren't uncommon in the Mother Lode during the Gold Rush, especially by the time Twain arrived at Angels Camp, in the winter of 1865. He even patronized a boarding house with a French chef. But perhaps streams were high, interrupting supplies, throwing prospectors back on their standard diet of dried pork, boiled potatoes, bread and beans. Especially beans.

"Beans and dishwater for breakfast at the Frenchman's; dishwater and beans for dinner; and both articles warmed over for supper," groused Twain in his journal for Jan. 23, 1865.

Men cooking
Washing, cooking, mending -- and ousting the occasional visiting bear -- kept miners' hours full.

Soon after James Marshall in 1848 spotted the first glimmer of gold at John Sutter's sawmill on the American River, grub available to prospectors gathering along the Sierra foothills was coarse, erratic and generally unvaried.

"Mother wants to know what we eat, drink and wear," wrote one Argonaut in a letter home. "First we eat bread, meat, rice, molasses, our drink is water, tea, coffee, and some times a snort of brandy."

Malcolm J. Rohrbough, author of "Days of Gold, The California Gold Rush and the American Nation," writes: "The basic diet seems to have been the same everywhere: meat (fresh or preserved), bread or biscuits, and coffee or tea with plenty of sugar."

Deprivation and malnutrition, particularly scurvy, were not uncommon among miners, but tended to be suffered more by the "extremely imprudent and the grotesquely unlucky," observes historian Joseph R. Conlin, author of "Bacon, Beans, and Galantines," a study of eating habits in mining settlements of the Western frontier.

In the foothills, prospectors were surrounded by antiscorbutic native wild plants -- wild onion, wild garlic, watercress, lamb's quarters and the like -- but often either didn't recognize them or didn't know what to do with them.

The exodus to the gold fields was largely male, from a society where women and servants did the cooking.

"I feel greatly the want of counsel and advice from you or others in biscuit-making and in some approved, or improved, method of brewing coffee," pleaded one gold seeker to his wife. "I have always been inclined to deride the vocation of ladies until now."

Conlin noted that "some miners told of filling a pot with rice but no water, placing it on the fire, and wondering why the result was not an edible fluffy piece."

*"Beans and dishwater for breakfast at the Frenchman's; dishwater and beans for dinner; and both articles warmed over for supper."
-- Mark Twain

This ineptitude at cookery provided restaurateurs their own bonanza, and restaurants and boarding houses flourished through the region.

And when Argonauts ate out, they had an inordinately fond appetite for fancy French food, then emerging as a cachet of wealth and status in the United States. Even if they hadn't already hit pay dirt, they were wildly optimistic that they would, and didn't hold back their hunger for the likes of Champagne and oysters. Oysters were so much a part of the Argonaut diet, the oyster beds of San Francisco were depleted by 1851 and schooners had to sail farther and farther north to net the prized mollusks.

Exorbitant food prices often associated with the Gold Rush -- $1 for a slice of bread in Placerville, $2 if it was buttered -- were common early on, and subsequently shot up during sporadic periods of high demand and low supply. According to Gold Rush lore, a farmer at Coloma sold her pears when they still were blossoms, tagging each flower with the name of the purchaser; at the time, ripe pears sold for $2.50 each.

The food and drink trade was so lucrative early in the Gold Rush that even James Marshall gave up the search for gold. He applied his carpentry skills to assembling barrels, planted a vineyard behind his Coloma cabin, and started to make wine.

For the most part, however, shipments and prices soon stabilized. "Into the summer of 1850 prices shot up and down like a volatile stock market. There were shortages, but there also were many gluts. Sacramento had so much bacon coming in that they couldn't sell it, and it was used for landfill," said Conlin in an interview from his horse ranch in Oregon, where he retired from California State University, Chico, two years ago.

"In the 1850s prices still went up and down, but not to ridiculous levels. That was over by the summer of 1850."

Ships' logs, miners' journals and hotel menus indicate the rich abundance of edibles available to prospectors. The bill of fare for the Columbia Hotel in Sacramento on July 29, 1850, listed 14 entrees, nine kinds of vegetables, six kinds of fruits and four kinds of pie.

Even far inland, the repertoire of foods expanded quickly. As early as January 1850 grocers along the foothills were tacking broadsides to oak trees to boast of their stocks of smoked halibut, dried cod, eggs, ham, beef, molasses, coffee, cheese, chocolate, spices, fresh figs, butter crackers and preserved vegetables, fruits and meats.

Although foods arrived from throughout the world, the cross-cultural blending of ingredients and cooking techniques so popular today was unheard of then. Historians attribute this isolation to differences in language, a tendency among different races and cultural groups to stay within their own communities, and lingering animosities from wars of the recent past, such as between the United States and Mexico.

But in one notable respect, the lure of flavorful, diverse and cheap food shattered barriers of unfamiliarity and suspicion. Caucasian miners feared, ridiculed and discriminated against the Chinese, but loved their food, notes Conlin. Many Chinese excluded from the mines stuck around to open restaurants, designated by triangular yellow silk flags on the front of their shops.

A Chinese cook is believed responsible for the one dish most closely identified with the Gold Rush, though it may not have been so much indigenous as adapted.

That would be "Hangtown fry," a scramble of eggs, bacon and oysters. While historians concur that the dish originated in Placerville, known early on as Hangtown, no one knows for sure what inspired it. One account claims that a prospector who just struck pay dirt wanted to celebrate with the most offbeat and costly meal that could be created in the camp.

Another yarn says a weary miner stumbled into his dark tent, tossed some bacon and eggs into a frying pan and grabbed what he took to be a can of beans, only to find later it was oysters. It wasn't what he expected, but not bad, either.

A third tale attributes the dish to a condemned man who asked that his last meal be of oysters, bacon and eggs, purportedly the most difficult victuals to find in the camp, thus providing him a stay of execution, however fleeting.

Conlin subscribes to the story of the newly rich prospector, and traces the original dish to the Cary House, a Placerville hotel and restaurant. The cook, says Conlin, surely was Chinese, for Hangtown fry is nothing but a variation of the Cantonese staple egg foo yung, and most Chinese in the diggings were from Canton.

Though simple, historic and once so popular it could be found at several restaurants in Placerville and Sacramento as recently as a decade ago, Hangtown fry now is out of favor and has disappeared from local menus.

Indeed, it's easier these days to find frog legs.

Gold tarnishes funeral

PROFILE In the Calaveras County mining camp of Carson Creek, a miner named Israel Norman died. Norman was very well liked and respected by his colleagues, so they decided to have a formal funeral for him. Another miner, who had been a preacher in the East, agreed to officiate, and they dug the grave about 100 yards from the camp.

As the minister began the eulogy, one of those in attendance began to play in an absent sort of way with the dirt from the grave site. It proved to be heavy with gold.

"Gold!," the preacher cried. "The congregation is dismissed!"

The dead miner was hastily buried elsewhere, in "played out" diggings.

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