Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

Wilder Shaw / Cheapism

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Are you from Iowa, Nebraska, or anywhere across the Midwestern or Western United States? If you are, there’s a good chance you’ve grown up on a not-so-classic pairing that most of us have never heard of: chili and cinnamon rolls. Believe it or not, this is a well-known tradition in specific regions of the country. But where did this combo come from? Why do people eat it? Here’s the story behind the odd couple of comfort food.

Looking Across Cinnamon Rolls RisingPhoto credit: kellyvandellen/istockphoto

The History Behind Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

There’s no definitive answer as to when this combo came about — logging camps in the early 1900s are often suggested — but many people throughout the Midwest enjoyed chili and cinnamon rolls in their school cafeteria as far back as the '60s. Others can trace the meal back further: According to Smithsonian Magazine, the combination made its way to school lunch menus after the formation of the USDA National School Lunch Program in 1946.

It makes sense that in both of these settings, chili and cinnamon rolls were able to provide sustenance for a large number of people using only a few ingredients. The combo is a hearty, affordable option for any student or worker, and it even provides a built-in dessert.

There’s no wrong way to recreate the meal, as Midwesterners cite chili and cinnamon roll recipes of different styles. The dish exists both with and without frosting, as well as both bean-only and ground beef-stuffed chili. Opinions vary greatly on this subject, so dip, soak, or eat separately. The choice is yours. 

Are chili and cinnamon rolls all they’re cracked up to be? I grew up in California where this was never part of our school lunch program, so I decided to find out. I hit the only place I could think of that sells both of those things: Panera.

Cinnamon Roll in chiliPhoto credit: Wilder Shaw / Cheapism

Chili and Cinnamon Rolls Taste Test

Look, gang. I can conceptualize what a bite of chili followed by a bite of a cinnamon roll would be. What I cannot conceptualize is the taste of a cinnamon roll that’s been sitting in a bowl of chili. So I dunked that whole sucker in there.

It doesn’t not work. The sweetness from the icing definitely goes in the chili’s favor. I’m a fan of chocolate in chili, so this isn’t a problem for me at all. Cinnamon isn’t foreign to chili either, as it’s a staple ingredient in Cincinnati-style chili. 

The bottom line: It’s not bad. As to whether or not I would order it again, that’s another story. I’ll have to let that one (don’t do a stupid pun, don’t do a stupid pun) digest.

Related: Chili Casserole and Other Creative and Unexpected Chili Recipes

Frequently Asked Questions

Where did eating cinnamon rolls and chili come from?

Though we don’t know specifically where the pairing originated, the combination has most commonly been found in elementary schools in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wyoming, both Dakotas, and even as far north as Washington. Iowa’s history with chili and cinnamon rolls is discussed in Darcy Dougherty Maulsby’s book, “A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites & More.” A recipe for chili con carne and cinnamon rolls even existed in Massachusetts, as covered in Marion Louise Cronan’s book, “The School Lunch.”

How do you eat chili and cinnamon rolls?

This is a choose-your-own adventure. Whether you're enjoying the combo in Lincoln, Nebraska, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota, feel free to rip and dip, drench the whole roll, or just save it for dessert. I’ll tell you this: I wish I had just saved mine for dessert. That was a pretty solid way to render a Panera cinnamon roll useless.

Are cinnamon rolls and chili good?

As far as my slightly-less-than-humble opinion goes, the pairing is fine. I think it’s better suited as a two-course meal than a combo, but I’m also willing to try this with different chili and a different roll. I respect ingenuity. I’m ready to give it another shot.

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