I grew up believing that, apart from whatever could be made on the grill, my dad could cook only two things: Western omelets and waffles with peanut butter and jelly.
Peanut butter and jelly on a waffle was pretty much the standard “Dad dinner” when my mom was working nights. A little bit sweeter than your typical PBJ, it was like a crispy, crunchy open-faced sandwich. The peanut butter would melt into every little nook and cranny of the toasted frozen waffle, satisfying even a persnickety 5-year-old me.
But Western omelets were where Dad really shone. I don’t know if he even still makes them, but when my sister and I were little, he’d make them on Saturdays for dinner every once in a while. Normally we’d had a busy day and Mom didn’t want to cook, so instead of takeout, Dad would throw the omelet together and serve it as a sandwich with freshly buttered wheat toast.
My mom told me once that Western omelets were the only thing her dad (my grandfather) really cooked, though he made his as a regular omelet after the family returned from church on Sunday mornings.
It may seem odd that two men a generation apart who had nothing in common except my mother would choose the Western omelet as their signature dish. But according to Denver Post food writer Kyle Wagner, the dish was likely created by men, for men, in the early 20th century.
The Western omelet consists of eggs, green pepper, onion, ham cubes and cheddar cheese. Wagner wrote in 2001 that likely the omelet was originally a sandwich made of scrambled eggs, green peppers and onions on a sourdough roll, adding that other food historians have said the sandwich was created by cowboys on cattle drives from ingredients that could be easily packed or found on the trail.
However, food writer James Beard also postulated that it could have been created by cooks in Chinese railroad and logging camps in the 19th and 20th centuries. Beard pointed out the meal’s similarity to the Chinese dish egg foo young, which is traditionally made with eggs and minced ham, but can also contain spring onions. Beard said that likely the cooks put the egg mixture between two slices of bread or on a roll to make it easier for the workers to carry with them through the day.
Here, I’ve more often seen it referenced as a “Denver omelet,” and a restaurant in that city known as The Delectable Egg claims to be “the home of the Denver omelet,” even though the origins of the dish itself predate the company’s 1982 opening. Still, that restaurant clearly takes pride in its city’s culinary heritage and takes pains to carry on the delicious tradition.
Though my grandfather passed away and I live 2,000 miles from my father—and I have no kids to cook for—I do my best to carry on the tradition as well. I like to go heavy on the ham and peppers, lighter on the onions, and serve it with the buttered toast and some Frank’s RedHot on the side.
Feel free to spice up the following recipe in your own way—green peppers are pretty traditional, but if you want to experiment with other colors, maybe substitute shallots for the onions and find an awesome maple-glazed ham, go for it.
Along the same lines, I’m pretty sure yellow cheddar is traditional, but I use a super-sharp aged Irish white that clearly has historical context—naturally, there must have been some Irish working on those railroads, too.
Happy Wagon Days!
2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
3/4 cup cubed ham
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
salt, pepper, and Frank’s RedHot sauce to taste
Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet (even a cast-iron skillet, if you want to get fancy). Meanwhile, beat eggs thoroughly with milk, then whisk in bell pepper, yellow onion and ham. Pour mixture into hot skillet and cook, stirring to cook evenly. Serve when eggs are just set, topping with cheese, salt, pepper and Frank’s. Serves 4.