The Midwest Is Obsessed with Eating Chili and Cinnamon Rolls Together

For some, it's as common as peanut butter and jelly.

When the cool weather arrives, there are fewer dishes people enjoy more than a bowl of chili. Most Americans eat the staple comfort food with crackers or corn bread. That is unless you're from some regions of the Midwest where eating chili and cinnamon rolls together is the norm. That's right, those fluffy sweet buns topped with frosting are served alongside bowls of chili.

We had never heard about this pairing until stumbling across multiple posts about it in the Instant Pot Community on Facebook. The unexpected combination became a school cafeteria lunch staple in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and other Midwestern states more than 70 years ago.

The Origin of Eating Chili and Cinnamon Rolls Together

bowl of chili and cinnamon roll
Courtesy of Darcy Maulsby

As reported in the Des Moines Register, Marietta Abarr began working as a school cook in 1944. She became famous for her home-cooked meals, with chili and cinnamon rolls being a favorite. This is just one origin story, as spots in Nebraska, Colorado, and Washington say they've served the same meal in schools dating back to the 1960s. Those cafeteria lunches from childhood were fondly remembered in adulthood; now, chili and cinnamon rolls are a staple meal in homes all over the Midwest.

"In the areas where this pairing has been a beloved school lunch for generations, it has never gone out of style," author and historian Darcy Maulsby says. "This is certainly true in parts of Iowa, where this magical combination seems to be most prevalent, including my hometown of Lake City, Iowa."

The author, who details the unique food pairing in her book A Culinary History of Iowa ($16, Amazon), notes there are also lifelong Iowans and other Midwesterners that have no idea the chili and cinnamon roll combo exists. So if you're from there and don't know anything about it, you're not alone.

How to Make Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

The chili you serve is up to you, but a classic beef chili is a good place to start. As for the cinnamon rolls, there's some debate on which type of sweet roll is best suited for the meal. Maulsby grew up eating her chili with caramel rolls, which she still prefers "because it brings back happy childhood memories." You can find a traditional recipe on her blog. For others, however, an iced cinnamon roll made with mashed potatoes is traditional. Lucky for you, one of our favorite cinnamon roll recipes includes the same special ingredient.

But Wait, How Do You Eat It?

If this phenomenon is new to you, you may wonder: Do you eat the cinnamon roll with the chili in the same bite? While some do rip off a piece of the roll and dunk it into their steamy cup of chili, Maulsby says most Iowans eat them separately. She says she ends up enjoying her roll after finishing, so to her, the cinnamon roll is her dessert.

Maulsby suspects the cinnamon roll with chili phenomenon is finding new life on home menus because "it reflects people's interest in authentic food experiences and discovering foods that are connected to a specific region." So why not try making some cinnamon rolls next time you make a pot of chili?

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