The Strange Reason People Eat Chili With Cinnamon Rolls

There's a chain of restaurants in the midwest called Runza that was selling the combo as far back as a couple of years ago (via Instagram). "Name a more iconic duo. We'll wait," its social media posts challenged fans. Runza, which professes to be "insane about onion rings," serves up  "legendary" crinkly fries, and lays claim to a Runza Rex dinosaur mascot (kind of like a green Barney) is a self-professed "mid-west thing." So, apparently, is chili combined with cinnamon rolls.

In Iowa and Nebraska, the unusual combo is so sought after that Taste of Home calls it a "local delicacy." Separate Redditors have also confirmed that the phenomenon exists in Alabama, South Dakota, Kansas, and Utah. And also Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oregon. This, in our view, unquestionably qualifies cinnamon rolls and chili as "a thing." If, however, you need further confirmation of the duo, there are over 20 different Reddit threads dedicated to exploring it. Read them, if you dare. 

Is the pairing delicious? After a thorough trip through the Chili and Cinnamon roll Redditverse, we'd give you a 50-50 chance of loving or hating it. Those who love it are its unwavering champions. "It's about as common as eating fries with a burger, not required, but almost assumed," writes one Redditor. "Say it ain't so," you're probably thinking. But, as another Redditor will happily challenge, "Cinnamon rolls and chili is about as American as Apple pie and I'm willing to die defending that."

The unusual origin of chili with cinnamon rolls

How did it all begin? Some stories allege that chili and cinnamon rolls started their love affair at midwestern logging camps when cooks poured leftover chili onto cinnamon rolls for breakfast, according to Atlas Obscura. The more common origin story for the sweet and savory combination, however, starts in the confines of school cafeterias. 

Marietta Abarr began combining cinnamon rolls with chili in her Iowa school's cafeteria in 1944. She'd make them there for over 30 years, a feat that produced so many fond memories that it was eventually memorialized in the local media (via Des Moines Register). Was Abarr the originator of the phenomenon? She might have been one of them. Author and historian Darcy Maulsby, who has traced variations of the combo across the state of Iowa, notes that the chili and cinnamon rolls  could have become popular in schools because the government used to send schools "tons of flour, beans, and tomatoes." Taste of Home speculates that the dish is the result of "retired farm wives" trying to create filling meals from cheap ingredients that met the state-mandated nutrition guidelines. 

Whatever their origin, there's a right way and a wrong way to make the combo. If you're looking to do it the midwestern way, Maulsby observes that many of Iowa's award-winning chili recipes include hints of brown sugar, grape jelly, or other sweet ingredients. And don't forget to incorporate mashed potatoes into your cinnamon rolls!