Why Do People Eat Cinnamon Rolls With Their Chili?

We get to the bottom of this unexpected comfort food combination and why it works.

Chocolate and pretzels. Apple pie and cheddar cheese. Pineapple on pizza. There are certain sweet-and-salty pairings that are universally agreed upon, and others that incite chaos and divide tasters. When I first heard about people eating chili with cinnamon rolls—yes, the decadent pastry you typically eat for breakfast—I was eager to discover which end of the sweet-savory spectrum it fell on. And more so, where this curious combination even started. Here's what I found.

The Origins of Eating Cinnamon Rolls & Chili Together

From my research, all signs point to this being a distinctly Iowan tradition, however the origins are still a little murky. According to an article from the Des Moines Register, the pairing dates back to the 1960s and was born in school lunchrooms. Thought to be a product of budget and ordering limitations, Iowa historians theorize that the combination was born from a need to come up with meals that were cost-effective but appealing to students.

Back in those days, from-scratch baking was commonplace in schools and cinnamon rolls were a crowd-pleaser. As for the pairing, it could have been a play to satisfy the mandated guidelines for, "one serving of a bread or grain product" and "two ounces daily of protein-rich foods", according to the Register.

Or perhaps it was just one nifty lunch cook who thought outside the box to bring together two student favorites. It's hard to say for sure, but what we do know is that once it landed on the school lunch menu, it wasn't long before it became a staple of the Iowa school scene. According to the paper, student attendance and participation went up on days where the cinnamon roll-and-chili menu was offered. That's one popular lunch!

And Iowa is not the only state that lays claim to the combo. Local records in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Washington, and the Dakotas have also written about this school cafeteria lunch. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the menu can be found on school records from Lake City, Iowa to Greeley, Colorado to even Brookline, Massachusetts, dating all the way back to the 1960s.

These days, if you ask many native Midwesterners, the pairing elicits a kind of Pavlovian moment that transports them to their childhood. To do my own fact-checking, I asked a friend who grew up in Iowa if he was aware of the cinnamon roll-chili combo. Not only was he aware of it, but he adored it, calling it the, "the best day," when it came to school lunch menu rankings.

The comfort food combo also seems to have become a staple of the Midwest in general, even spreading to parts of the South. It's now common to hear the pairing discussed all over the country—and social media—so there's got to be something to it. Here's why I think cinnamon rolls and chili work together.

Why It Works

While it may not be a staple from my own personal childhood, I can certainly see why the pairing works. I'm a firm believer that a pinch or two of cinnamon adds great depth of flavor to chili (looking at you Cincinnati Chili!), and I often pair my chili with a 'sweeter' bread like cornbread, challah bread, or Parker House Rolls. Cinnamon rolls bring together an enriched, pillowy dough with warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. As for the frosting, well that's just the icing on the cake, I suppose.

Plus, combining sweet and savory components of a lunch comes naturally to most. Who among us hasn't dipped a french fry in a milkshake?! The two parts come together in harmony, like the ying and yang of flavors, the sweet balancing the salty and vice versa.

As for mixing the two dishes versus enjoying them side by side, it depends who you ask. While some do encourage dipping and dunking pieces of the cinnamon roll into the chili, others say it's best to enjoy the cinnamon roll between bites or after you've finished the chili.

The Bottom Line

Like any food, I always say, 'Don't knock it 'til you try it!' But, like many comfort foods, cinnamon rolls and chili does seem to be fueled by nostalgia; It's an unlikely pairing that resonates most deeply when you grew up eating it.

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