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Champagne and Greased Beans

09/30/2011 06:06PM ● Published by Wendy Sipple

The predominately male migration of gold-rushing 49ers came from a society in which domestic cooking remained “women’s work.”

Most early prospectors faced the unfamiliar and foreboding task of food and meal preparation without the slightest knowledge of even the simplest culinary techniques. Some miners, for example, told of filling a pot with rice but not water, placing it on the fire, and wondering why the end result failed to meet their hungry expectations.

Men in mining companies customarily rotated the chores of cooking, serving and cleaning up on a weekly basis. Some cooks had more skills than others, but a common lack of culinary talents never excused a man from performing these duties. The inexperience of almost all 49ers and the constant demand for meals prompted many entrepreneurs to open inexpensive public eating houses in canvas tents or small rough-board shanties. A miner who arrived in 1849 remembered that there “were any number of eating houses and hotels” in Coloma.
By January 1850, Milton Elstner’s Eldorado Hotel in Placerville offered a “square meal with dessert” for three dollars. The menu included: ox tail soup, baked beans (plain or greased), Mexican beef (prime cut) and tame beef (from the states), grizzly (bear) roasted or fried, jackass rabbit (whole), sauerkraut, hash (low grade or 18 carat); and for dessert, rice pudding (plain, with molasses, or with brandy peaches).

Like the Eldorado Hotel, the majority of Placerville-area eating houses provided ordinary, everyday, all-American meals of bacon and eggs, soups, stews, steaks, chops, potatoes and almost always – oysters. A Chinese cook at Placerville’s Cary House created a variation of the Cantonese staple, Egg Foo Yung known as the “Hangtown Fry.” The original dish, most closely identified with the Gold Rush, consisted of a mixture of eggs, bacon and oysters. Supposedly, after striking it rich, a prospector from the Shirt Tail Bend Mine walked into the hotel’s restaurant one day and wanted to celebrate his good fortune with the most offbeat and costly meal that could be created. Then, eggs went for about one dollar each, because they had to be shipped over rough roads and most cracked along the way. A can containing a dozen oysters and shipped from the East sold for $11. With those items available, the cook satisfied the miner’s request.

Later, menus of eating houses like the Eldorado Hotel reflected a rich abundance of edibles available to prospectors bored with a standard diet of dried pork, biscuits, coffee and especially – beans. They also catered to a more “sophisticated” clientele with bills of fare that featured Champagne, London ale, mock turtle soup, smoked halibut, cod and ham, duck (with anchovy sauce), goose (with liver sauce), veal and venison meat pies, an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, calf’s foot and blanc mango jellies, custard ravienne, raspberry tarts and floating island. In mining towns like Placerville, one historian noted: “A fine restaurant was one of the ends by which hosts demonstrated to Eastern or European guests, that, despite their geographical isolation, they were thoroughly cosmopolitan.” •

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