Chili and cinnamon rolls: The murky origin of the nostalgic food pairing

SEATTLE -- It’s the food pairing that’s both controversial and conventional.

It all depends on how you were raised.

In countless school lunchrooms across the U-S, Friday was a time for chili and cinnamon rolls.

For many who grew up eating the combination, to this day the two are inseparably linked. But for those who never experienced the spicy and sweet pairing it’s a foreign and downright offensive concept.

Still, it is indeed a thing.

The Tacoma, Seattle and Spokane school districts all served the combination in bygone decades. School districts in Salem and Reedsport Oregon did as well.

But why?

“Chili is a one pot meal, it has all the protein, almost all the vegetable servings needed in a meal,” says long time school cook Susan Stroscheim. “It is an easy meal to prepare and that leaves time for the cooks to make cinnamon rolls, which are labor and time intensive.”

The tradition stretches beyond the Pacific Northwest as well.

“Chili and cinnamon rolls is a school lunch staple here in Nebraska,” says Becky Perrett of Runza Restaurants.

Runza is famous in the midwest for its chili and cinnamon rolls.

“We’ve offered homemade chili seasonally on our menu for decades, says Perrett. “Miller & Paine, a department store here in Nebraska, featured a Tea Room/Restaurant for customers – back in the day when ladies wore hats to shop and the outing was an experience. After the stores closed, the family was looking for an outlet to continue the tradition of their recipe and our brand was a great fit as we already know about making dough for our signature Runza Sandwich.”

And yet, why cinnamon rolls? Why not pair chili with cookies, cakes or pie?

There is a regional variety of chili that calls for cinnamon. Cincinnati chili often includes cumin, allspice, cloves, chocolate and cinnamon. That could explain the flavor connection.

But there could be another explanation that dates back even earlier, to logging camps from the turn of the century.

“Cinnamon roll and chili in Hoquiam Washington was called a loggers breakfast,” says Q13 News viewer Nick Larson‎. “My grandma would make it for me as a child. Logging camps would take yesterday's left overs make chili dump it over a cinnamon roll for high calories the loggers needed for work.”

Which begs the question is the chili and the cinnamon roll meant to be eaten at the same time or separately?

Some traditionalists are strict separatists with the chili being consumed first and the. followed by the cinnamon roll as dessert. Other lovers of the pair say the cinnamon rolls should be torn apart and dipped in the chili as the two are simultaneously consumed. And then there seems to be the logging tradition in which the two arrived at the table combined already.

One thing is clear, the combination has fallen out of fashion at schools across the country for one very important reason.

“The nutritional requirements these days would restrict the cinnamon roll due to the high sugar, fat, and carbohydrates allowed in child nutrition in school meals,” explains the long time school cook Susan Stroscheim.