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What do you pair with your chili? Your answer might depend on where you come from. For those in Iowa and other states in the American heartland, cornbread apparently isn’t the only choice for a chili counterpart. In fact, it turns out that the Midwest has another favorite staple for chili night: cinnamon rolls!
If that sounds odd, it could be because you didn’t grow up attending public school in Iowa. This unique sweet-savory food trend seems to have started in cafeterias in The Hawkeye State and others nearby and is something that many grownups now remember fondly.
This combo is so iconic in the central U.S. that Runza Restaurants (a Nebraska-based chain famous for their runza sandwiches, another regional gem) often features chili and cinnamon rolls together on its menu.
CHILI AND CINNAMON ROLLS ARE BACK
— Runza Restaurants (@Runza) September 30, 2020
Runza recently shared a funny meme on Twitter, showing the pairing served together on a tray. They teased that they would bottle their famous ranch dressing if people would finally start taking this combination seriously.
don't ruin this pic.twitter.com/cKOvinH8rE
— Runza Restaurants (@Runza) December 2, 2020
The challenge got plenty of hearty support!
Twitter user @ATXsonja fondly recalled how her mom used to make her the very same meal of chili and cinnamon rolls when she was a kid:
Meanwhile, @eightlaces agreed that chili and cinnamon rolls is definitely a thing, saying that it’s been one “since elementary school.”
This has been a thing since elementary school.
— Brandon Cavanaugh (@eightlaces) December 2, 2020
As that Twitter user alluded to, this trend seems to have started in part with Marietta Abarr. According to the Des Moines Register, this hard-working mother of seven worked as a school cook in Clearfield, Iowa, for over 30 years, and one of her most beloved dishes by students was her yummy pairing of chili and cinnamon rolls.
And no wonder: Cinnamon rolls offer a sugary complement to the natural, savory heat of chili, giving you a sweet and spicy meal that satisfies kids and adults alike.
Cookbook author Darcy Maulsby (who penned 2016’s “A Culinary History of Iowa”) says that chili and cinnamon rolls are a beloved part of many people’s childhoods in the Midwest, and one that people now fondly remake for their own families. She reckons that the culinary pairing was one born of necessity, as clever school cooks like Abarr worked hard to feed their students on a small budget.
“My guess is that back in the ’60s when commodity programs were supplying items to the school lunch programs, you could get things in bulk,” Maulsby told the Des Moines Register. “At that time … a lot of the school cooks, especially in the rural schools, were retired farm wives. These were gals who had cooked all their lives … (and) knew how to make a hardy, filling meal and knew how to stretch a dollar.”
She guessed that it was that combination of factors that led to the initial pairing of such an odd couple as chili and cinnamon rolls. It’s impossible to imagine a school lunch like that flying in today’s health food-conscious world!