I recently found myself sharing a dinner table at LeDoux Saloon in Sheridan, Wyoming, with a couple of Wyomingites, two Seattle residents (one of whom was a Pittsburgh transplant), a New Yorker and a Midwestener. The conversation was amiable—we’d been deciphering the different sauces that accompanied our chicken wings appetizer—when suddenly, things got weird. Several of us had ordered entrees that came with a side of “cowboy beans,” a mix of pinto beans and ground beef marinated in a cinnamon honey whiskey. As they arrived at our table, one of my dining companions, Piper Singer, who works with Wyoming’s tourism bureau, asked, “Have any of you ever had chili and cinnamon rolls?” The Pittsburgh transplant’s jaw just about hit the floor, and he had a look of utter disgust on his face. “I think things just spiraled from there,” Singer said later, laughing.
It turns out that the pairing of chili and cinnamon rolls is a big, beloved deal in regional pockets of the Midwest and across western states like Wyoming and Washington. But for those who’ve never heard of or tasted this treasured food combo, just a mention of serving these two items together can be as polarizing as putting pineapple on pizza or ketchup on hot dogs. “Some people are just appalled when I talk about it,” says Darcy Dougherty Maulsby, a western Iowa native and author of A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites & More. Maulsby grew up with the unorthodox pairing. “A friend of mine from Minnesota says it's like eating birthday cake and scrambled eggs together,” she says. However, for Maulsby, Singer, and other diehard fans, the allure of this sweet and savory union—we’re talking huge and doughy cinnamon rolls (either topped with thick, white frosting, or swirled with caramel throughout) served together with hearty bowls of classic red chili brimming with tomatoes, kidney beans and ground meat—is undeniable.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Singer.
But the truth of it is, no one really knows when and where this culinary combo began. Some say the dish can be traced back to logging camps at the beginning of the 20th century, where hard-working loggers needed meals that were both high in calories and satisfying. Most others cite chili and cinnamon rolls as a once-essential part of their school lunch programs. This includes Doug Wordell, a registered dietician and the director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools in Washington, as well as a born-and-bread Spokane native who went through the school system in the 1970s and early ’80s. For Wordell, it was the scents of the cinnamon and fresh bread wafting from the school cafeteria that he remembers most, and that can still send his heart reeling. “It’s a wonderful memory,” he says. “I was on the meal program, and as a hungry, skinny little runner with a single mom raising four kids, those warm school lunches were super important to me.”
Wordell believes the unique combination began appearing on school lunch menus after the establishment of the USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946, “Post World War II, post Dust Bowl,” he says, referencing the cataclysmic period that led to a newfound interest in child nutrition. While the NSLP continues today to be a federally assisted meal program that helps provide “nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches” to school children, the program was also established as a way to help increase the demand for agricultural goods. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the program nationally, though it’s always been up to state agencies to determine what foods they’ll be purchasing with the federal funds. However, purchases must adhere to the USDA’s meal-pattern requirements, which includes a serving of milk, two servings of fruits and/or vegetables, a grain, and meat or a meat alternative per lunch for each student.
“Back 20 years ago and further,” Wordall says, “states would tell the USDA, ‘we want some beans and chicken,’ and they’d receive whole chickens and 50-pound bags of beans. The local school district would then have to make their menus off of these large quantities of food.” Still, their biggest challenge was in being able to manage food costs and production while coming up with dishes that kids would actually eat. “If 25 percent of your food budget comes from the USDA entitlement, you've got to make it work,” he says.
This is where the pairing of chili and cinnamon rolls in U.S. school systems most likely originated. You’ve got beans, an easy, low-cost item that as legumes could be considered as either a vegetable or a protein-packed meat alternative. According to Wordell, an order of beans could also be stretched into more meals than other food items, making them more economical for school districts. But how do you make them appealing? Toss them in a tomato sauce and pair them with something sweet.
By the 1960s, chili and cinnamon rolls were appearing on school cafeteria menus from Lake City, Iowa, to Greeley, Colorado. The school lunch program director of Brookline, Massachusetts, public schools, Marion Louise Cronan, even featured a recipe for chili con carne and cinnamon rolls—something she may have learned about during her many years editing the school lunch section of Practical Home-Economics magazine—in her 1962 cafeteria textbook, The School Lunch. Soon, regions of Nebraska, Washington, Wyoming, the Dakotas, became well-versed in the pairing, creating quite a fanatic following west of the Mississippi River. Why it didn’t catch on in the east may be a combination of culinary heritage and regional food tastes.
“Many people who grew up here in the Midwest and in these smaller farming communities come from a baking tradition,” says Maulsby, “and they were used to baking their own breads.” This included the many retired farmwives who often found work in local school cafeterias. Cinnamon rolls were a part of their repertoire, and were considered a grain to boot.
“We didn’t realize how lucky we were,” she adds.
Still, Maulsby believes that the cinnamon-chili combo is not really all that unusual, since Cincinnati-style chili, a meaty sauce made with a distinct blend of spices—including cinnamon—dates back to the 1920s.
While some school cafeterias have phased out the dish for nutritional purposes, replacing foods like cinnamon rolls—high in saturated fat—with healthier, nutrient-rich alternatives, the chili and cinnamon roll combo still graces menus from Cheyenne’s The Omelet House to Tina’s Cafe in Lincoln, Nebraska. There’s also Runza, a popular Midwest fast-food chain that began in Nebraska in the late 1940s, which offers the pairing as a combo meal, complete with a medium-size Pepsi. In Sheridan, where my deep delve into the chili-and-cinnamon-roll phenomenon began, Uptown Shabby Shack Eatery & Catering occasionally offers the dish as a special, serving their frosted cinnamon roll right on top of the chili bowl.
As to how to eat the distinguished combo (Singer herself is a dipper, using parts of the roll to sop up the chili; Maulsby eats them chili first, cinnamon roll second), it all depends on where you grew up. This, after all, is a meal that thrives on nostalgia. Although the Spokane school system has more recently shifted to serving chili with cornbread (“We went more toward whole foods and tried to reduce some of those sweet treat perceptions,” says Wordell), just talking about the pairing has Wordell dreaming of its sweet-savory goodness. “It’s one of those childhood memories that when I came back here as the director 24 years ago I thought, ‘Yeah, there it is!’ Now I feel like it needs to make another appearance on our menus,” he says.