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Just like a million breakfast places across the country, The Perfect Landing offers a classic Denver omelette: ham, peppers, onions and cheese. It's a combination that seems to have been around since at least the early 1900s, yet details regarding its origins remain as scrambled as the dish itself.
The most reliable account suggests that the omelette was an offshoot of the Western sandwich -- basically, scrambled eggs with green peppers and onions on bread, ideally a sourdough roll. In the Dictionary of American Food & Drink, Esquire food writer John F. Mariani says the earliest print reference to a Western sandwich appeared in 1951, although he neglects to mention where it appeared. The first record I could find was in 1964's American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating & Drinking,which states that the sandwich was invented by pioneer women attempting to "mask the flavor of over-the-hill eggs." But that's probably nonsense since, as Jean Anderson points out in The American Country Cookbook, pioneer women didn't have access to green peppers.
Several minor food-history books speculate that the Western sandwich was created by cowboys on cattle drives: Eggs would have been easy to get from traders or the chickens that cooks sometimes dragged along the trail; ham could be cured and thus travel well; and the vegetables could all be dried or, in the case of the onions, found wild. (By almost all accounts, cheese didn't enter the picture until decades later.) The omelette's contemporary popularity as a camping staple -- evidenced by its appearance both in backpacking cookbooks and as a freeze-dried backpacking meal -- would seem to back up the cattle-drive theory.
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And how did the Western sandwich become a Denver omelette? Easy. Along the way the bread was jettisoned, and, as two cookbooks from back East imply, when Easterners were introduced to the Western omelette in Denver, the name was changed to that of the biggest city in the Rocky Mountain West.
Still, references to the sandwich and the omelette -- either Western or Denver -- are rare in major culinary dictionaries and books on food history. Beloved food writer Craig Claiborne makes no mention of it in any of his cookbooks or food dictionaries, and noted food historians Jane and Michael Stern and Waverly Root also fail to mention the dish in their works. James Beard's 1972 American Cooking, however, offers recipes for both the omelette and the sandwich, along with this caveat: "There is no true recipe for this."
When a train-enthusiast friend suggested the Denver omelette might have emerged during early railroading days, I perused nearly a hundred dining-car menus and found no mention of either the omelette or the sandwich. But then I stumbled on several references to a theory that the Western sandwich was created by Chinese cooks working in railroad and logging camps, who put the egg-foo-yung-like mess on bread to make it easier for the men to carry around or put in a sack. In fact, just before he died, Beard admitted that he'd always favored this theory, because railroading camps had been such a strong influence on the movement of food through this part of the country. "It seems to have been called the Western until the railroads made it to Utah, and then folks in Utah apparently renamed it the Denver," he added.
An online search turned up nearly 108,000 references to the Denver omelette (also spelled "omelet") and the Western omelette. Not only does the dish appear on thousands of restaurant menus -- some sticking strictly with the aforementioned ingredients, others trying to class them up by, say, switching the onions for shallots or prosciutto for the ham -- but it also shows up in cookbooks, on food-history sites and as a popular simile. A writer for the Modesto Bee, for example, last year claimed that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia's passes "sometimes look like a Denver omelet tossed out of a third-story window."
The character in a romance noir complains that women usually don't give him the time of day after they realize he has "a face like a Denver omelet," while a more Harlequin-type novel reveals how, after a night of circumspect passion, a man offers to make a woman breakfast: "I make a mean Denver omelet," he coos. When Jeff Goldblum was on David Letterman's show last year, the actor and the host, along with music man Paul Schaeffer, tried to recall the ingredients of a Denver omelette, and that same question is now an official part of the game Trivial Pursuit.
Two motorcycle enthusiasts who offer an online recap of a cross-country adventure confess that they eat a Denver omelette "for good luck" just before riding into Colorado. Which is smart, because according to one chat-room transcript, "You can't get a Denver omelet in Denver." Untrue. And there's more bad information out there, particularly on the food- history site that claims the Denver omelette was invented by someone in France who originally called it the dénuer omelette because "dénuer means 'deprived,' and the intention was to show that an American-made omelette would be deprived of class." Oh, please.