What’s the Deal with Chili and Cinnamon Rolls?

This strange—and controversial—combination is a Midwest classic.

You’ve heard of ranch with pizza and bagels with lox. But what about chili with cinnamon rolls? The combination may seem strange to Americans outside a very limited geographical zone, but in Iowa and Nebraska, it’s a local delicacy.

As a Wisconsin native, I had never heard of chili and cinnamon rolls until moving to Iowa for college, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw the two dishes mingled together on a plate in the dining hall.

The True Story of Cinnamon Rolls and Chili

According to the Des Moines Register, the strange combo likely has its origins in a locale not far off from my first encounter: the school cafeteria. Back in the ’60s, many school cafeterias were staffed by retired farm wives whose ingenuity and knack for creating hearty meals from inexpensive ingredients led to some unusual concoctions. (Do you remember these cafeteria recipes?) Combine kid-favorite cinnamon rolls with bean and vegetable chili, and voila, you have a dish that’s both fun to eat and fulfills the daily nutrition guidelines.

As those cafeteria kids grew into adults, their fondness for this pairing never waned. Iowa and Nebraska kids are still raised on a hearty dinner of cinnamon rolls and chili to this day! You can even find the dish on the menu at local restaurants, like the beloved Nebraska-based Runza chain. Some swear that dunking the cinnamon roll in the chili is the only proper way to eat the two together, while others believe that the pair is best served side by side, but never mixed.

What Makes the Combo So Good?

My boyfriend Brett, a born-and-bred Iowan from a town just past the Iowa/Nebraska border, makes the dish as a comfort food whenever he’s missing home. (In case you’re wondering, he’s firmly on the “never dunk” side of the debate.) “It’s just a good combination,” Brett says. “The sweet spiciness of the cinnamon rolls complements the savory flavor of the chili. It’s a match made in heaven.”

There you have it, folks! If you’re brave enough to try this combo for yourself, we recommend cooking up our Test Kitchen-approved chili for two and cinnamon rolls. In the meantime, check out some of our other favorite funky food pairings.

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Megan Mowery
Megan is a freelance writer based in Des Moines. You can usually find her shopping at the farmers market, reading a book or scrolling through Instagram.