When James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848, news traveled fast. In the years that followed nearly 300,000 folks from the US and abroad made their way to the west coast to take a chance at finding their fortune. In 1849 alone, 80,000 new faces entered California. These gold-seeking travelers were dubbed the “forty-niners,” a reference to the year when the rush for gold really picked up steam. Prior to this time California was a territory focused primarily on agriculture. Once word of the gold discovery spread, many farmers abandoned their fields in favor of seeking their fortunes. The small oceanside harbor village of Yerba Buena was soon overflowing with ships; the area became the booming metropolis now known as San Francisco. This turn of events had a major impact on the culinary landscape of California. The state’s potential to become an agricultural heavyweight was put on hold as Oregon stepped up to become the main food provider to the gold-rush population. In 1849, when gold rush towns were first taking root, most food was cooked at the mining sites or in newly established boarding houses and saloons. As more and more travelers arrived from a variety of regions and economic backgrounds, restaurants, hotels and inns were built to accommodate and feed them.
In the harsh conditions of American frontier life, men were often forced to cook for themselves without the help of women, the traditional homemakers of that time period. This culinary self-sufficiency proved important in California’s gold rush, where only eight percent of the new population was made up of women, with even smaller numbers in mining areas. In the early days both food and riches were plentiful. Miners could uncover $2000 of gold in just one day; when it came to food, there was plenty of wild game to be hunted and bacon, beans and coffee could be purchased for a reasonable price. Times appeared to be good. Newly rich miners built mansions in what is now the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and treated themselves to chilled beverages and pats of butter served over ice. At the time, ice was so highly sought after that Alaskan glaciers were leased by Hudson’s Bay and shipped to San Francisco in chunks to be stored in iceboxes.
Over time, because the majority of food in California had to be imported, it became notoriously expensive. In just a few short months, the price of food tripled. Many miners arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a lack of basic supplies, which meant merchants were at a major advantage and could charge outrageously high prices for their goods. Simple items like eggs and slices of bread were sold for a dollar a piece in 1849, an astronomical price even now, over 150 years later. Because of the high price of food, several firsthand accounts of gold rush life depict times of near-starvation. Nutrition, unfortunately, was not high on a miner’s list of priorities. Fruits and vegetables were scarce and as a result many miners suffered from scurvy. Forty-niners also hated to tear themselves away from their search for gold and turned to quick meals that could be cooked over hot ashes. Flour, a common and often costly staple, was stretched by combining it with sour milk and cornmeal to be eaten as mush.
San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread became a staple food item during the Gold Rush. Miners would often buy a loaf in the morning that would be eaten slowly throughout the day. The Boudin family, who came from France, was partially responsible for putting San Francisco sourdough on the map. The bakery has used the same sourdough starter since 1849 and legend has it that when the 1906 earthquake hit, Louise Boudin was able to save a bucket of the mother dough, ensuring that each loaf that came from the bakery would be linked throughout history.
During times of plenty when gold made miners rich overnight, they would sometimes indulge in a dish called Hangtown Fry. The strange concoction originated in Hangtown (now known as Placerville), which served as a supply base to California’s mining region. In the beginning of the Gold Rush the area was referred to as Old Dry Diggins, named after the miner’s practice of carrying dry soil to running water for washing gold. The name was changed to Hangtown after several men were hanged from a white oak tree in town for robbery, murder and other mining-related crimes. According to a story found in the Mountain Democrat newspaper, Hangtown Fry originated in the saloon of the El Dorado Hotel when a miner requested “the finest and most expensive meal in the house.” The cook presented the man with an omelet made with bacon and oysters, both costly imported ingredients, and thus the Hangtown Fry was born. It seems a perfect reflection of Gold Rush cuisine – made from the finest ingredients yet not at all elegant, the dish includes a mish-mosh of various regional ingredients held together by symbolic golden eggs. Try this recipe from PBS Food for a taste of Gold Rush history in your very own kitchen.
Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Print.
Chandonnet, Ann. Gold Rush Grub: From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo. Fairbanks, AK: U of Alaska, 2005. Print.
Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bacon, Beans, and Galantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier. Reno: U of Nevada, 1986. Print.
Noble, Doug. “The Origin of the Hangtown Fry.” Mountain Democrat Newspaper [Placerville] 31 July 2000: n. pag. Print.
Peters, Erica J. San Francisco: A Food Biography. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Print.
Root, Waverley, and Richard De Rochemont. Eating in America: A History. New York: Morrow, 1976. Print.
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Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of ToriAvey.com. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.