The Yolk's on Us

A couple of eggs, a bit of cheese, one fistful of cubed ham and another of soggy green-pepper-and-onion mix out of the galley cold table. It's a strange thing to be famous for, but culinarily, the Denver omelette is about all we've got. For years, decades even, this simple mix of last night's kitchen scraps has been the single food item (not counting Coors or Rocky Mountain oysters) most identified with the Mile High City. It has been our three-egg ambassador, our hearty handshake and culinary letter of introduction.

Still, the omelette's origins remain vague. Google the erstwhile favorite and you find -- in addition to about a hundred thousand mentions of it on menus from Nome to Singapore -- conjectures that range from the Truckstop Premise (a theory that the Denver omelette was an invention of midnight hash-slingers working east of the Continental Divide who created a Mile High plate of scrambled eggs, peppers and cheese for hungry truckers coming down out of the Rockies) to the Railroad Theory (wherein Chinese immigrants working the transcontinental line ate a sort of egg foo yung-ish combination of peppers, egg and cured pork that later became the basis for the Western sandwich -- essentially a Denver omelette between two slices of bread). There are those who believe that the "Western" is actually a mangling of a French Basque speciality called piperade, the recipe stolen from Basques who settled in Nevada; others trace it back to the seventeenth-century English colonials who made a dish called "frizzled ham with eggs." And then there are the more literal-minded armchair historians who (quoting John Mariani's Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink) note that the first mention in print of the so-called "Western Omelette" was in 1935, while the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America dates the initial use of the phrase "Denver Sandwich" -- meaning eggs, green peppers, onions, ham, salt and pepper on toasted white bread -- to 1918, in a restaurant-industry publication, thereby proving that the Denver omelette actually pre-dates (in print, anyhow) the Western sandwich. For his part, James Beard -- the legendary cook, author and archivist of American cuisine -- has recipes for both in his American Cookery collection, and most people (or at least most of those who've stuck with the argument this long) are generally willing to let Big Jimmy be the final authority on the matter.

One of the very few things that food historians seem to agree on is that no one really believes the Denver omelette was invented in Denver. As a matter of fact, our fair city is almost never mentioned in any academic discussion of our eponymous omelette, which makes sense, because the Denver omelette itself has absolutely nothing to do with Denver.

Seriously, what part of Colorado culture and history is being showcased by a bunch of mushy peppers, some onions and ham? Ham and green chile, sure. Better yet, chopped steak and a little verde, folded up inside a three-egg omelette and served on a John Elway commemorative plate. And even better than that, how 'bout just cutting out all the nonsense and cracking a couple of eggs into a tall glass of Coors and calling it breakfast? There has to be something that we, as Denverites, can do to reclaim the Denver omelette as our own. Initially, the good people at the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau had wanted to update the omelette as part of the festivities surrounding Denver Restaurant Week, but NBA All-Star overload put that plan on the back burner. Instead, the week-long feastivities include more than eighty restaurants across the city kicking out the jams on special $52.80 two-person prix fixe menus, any one of which could easily steal the Colorado culinary crown from the Denver omelette.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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