How The Denver Omelet May Have Been Inspired By Chinese Cuisine

The Denver Omelet is about as unpretentious in preparation and presentation as any food could be. It begins as a simple omelet — eggs and cheese — to which ham, onions, green peppers, and mushrooms are added. According to The Denver Post, the first mention of the dish in a newspaper was in the 1950s, and it has remained a staple of American breakfast menus ever since. However, the origins of the Denver Omelet remain elusive, despite a widespread Rocky Mountain rumor.

A plaque on California Street in Denver, between 21st and 22nd streets, states that the first Denver Omelet was whipped up by a clever pioneer woman to mask the taste of rotten eggs shipped in on a wagon, per Read The Plaque. The story has been widely circulated and upheld as the gospel truth by some Denverites, but The Denver Post contends that the legend is almost certainly false. 

For starters, green peppers (which are actually under-ripened red peppers) likely would not have been available in Denver in the pioneer days of the early 1800s. Furthermore, anyone familiar with rotten eggs will understand that the thought of masking its scent with anything is laughable.

The Denver Omelet was likely inspired by Egg Foo Young

The true origins of the Denver Omelet likely lie within the mining industry. As Atlas Obscura recounts, the Rocky Mountain population rocketed in the late 19th century thanks to the Gold Rush of 1858 and the Colorado Silver Boom of 1879. This period also brought a wave of Chinese migrants to the region.

According to PBS, many Chinese immigrants arrived with hopes of striking it rich in the mines, but due to the intense racism they were subjected to, most were relegated to unprofitable mining sites that Americans had previously abandoned. In the 1860s, many Chinese ended up transitioning to work on building the Transcontinental Railroad, per The Guardian. That railroad relied on the labor of underprivileged groups like the Chinese in the west, Mormons in the center of the country, and Irish immigrants in the east.

The work brought a new wave of Chinese migrants through the Rockies, some of whom settled there to work in the emerging mining industry. They brought with them a particular dish called Egg Foo Young, which The Denver Post describes as consisting of eggs beaten with minced ham and chopped vegetables. The dish provided a substantial calorie boost, making it a welcome start to a day of hard labor in the mines. It took hold in the region, likely evolving into the omelet we all know so well.