When Adam Schneider first moved to Yoder, Kansas, from St. Louis and began working at Carriage Crossing Restaurant in 2000, he quickly fell in love with the restaurant’s made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls. But he wasn’t prepared for what customers would do with those cinnamon rolls when beef-and-bean chili came to the menu in the fall.
“I was surprised when our guests started ordering the two together as their lunch,” says Schneider, now owner of Carriage Crossing. Baffling though the pairing was initially, Schneider now serves chili and cinnamon rolls together as a seasonal special, from November through March. “I quickly learned that this combination is ubiquitous in this part of the country.”
Across the Heartland, most notably Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa, and Colorado (and, by some accounts, all the way to Idaho and Washington), this pairing has endured for the better part of a century. Trekking across the Great Plains, you’re likely to find the pair served as an alternative to pancake dinner fundraisers, a seasonal special in restaurants, or a cool-weather staple in the homes of many locals.
Where’d this duo come from?
For many, the thought of school lunch doesn’t inspire nostalgia. But generations have grown up with “bowl and a roll” Fridays in elementary, middle, and high school cafeterias. For decades, cooler weather has signaled the return of the oddly satisfying pairing of beef-and-bean chili and gooey cinnamon rolls, which appears on lunch trays alongside carrot and celery sticks, fruit cocktail, and a carton of milk.
The duo’s provenance could be credited to an interest in child nutrition following the agricultural and economic devastation of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, when the Works Progress Administration and later President Truman locked in federal funding for school lunch programs across rural parts of the country. School cooks tasked with feeding classrooms of hungry kids, many armed with the experience of cooking hardy meals on the farm, had to make do with what they had on hand, like bags of dried beans and ground beef.
While “chili” can mean a lot of things in different parts of the country, the version served with cinnamon rolls in schools essentially follows a formula established in the ’40s: a tomato base with ground or diced beef, beans, onion, and spices usually called — Texans look away — chili con carne. This recipe can be found in various recipe collections, including School Lunch Recipes for 100, issued by the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics in 1946. By 1962, chili con carne had spread far to the east and had been cemented to its sweet comrade; Marion Louise Cronan, a public school lunch program director in Massachusetts, included a chili con carne and cinnamon roll pairing in her 1962 cafeteria recipe book, The School Lunch.
As for the cinnamon rolls, farmlands across Kansas and Nebraska in particular were a destination for settlers of German and Volga German heritage in the mid-1800s, as well as Swedish immigrants fleeing famine. These immigrants turned the region into a pastry stronghold, and may have brought their talents for cinnamon-flecked dough to school cafeterias.
Cheryl Johnson, director of Child Nutrition & Wellness for the Kansas State Department of Education, says that many schools across Kansas still serve bowl and a roll. “Those are days that participation increases,” she says. “Kids look forward to that menu combination.” The combo has had to keep up with the times, though. Ever since the Obama administration passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, the cinnamon rolls are “healthier,” says Johnson — that is, a bit smaller, made from whole grains, and topped with less frosting than the ones she ate in the ’60s growing up in Valley Falls, Kansas.
What makes it so good?
“There’s nothing about the combination that doesn’t work — the heat of the chili and cool creaminess of the cinnamon roll, the textures, the spicy, salty, sweet,” says Meg Heriford, owner of Ladybird Diner in Lawrence, Kansas. “Stew and bread are great friends.”
Some prefer their chili without beans. Others top the chili with cheese. As Heriford attests, the sweetness of a frosted cinnamon roll strikes an unusual yet delicious balance with the saltiness of the chili. The warmth and spice of cinnamon, often found in savory stews, complement the heat from paprika, chile powder, and cayenne in the chili. (Heriford finds the soup and sweet roll combo is actually pretty flexible; for her own family dinners, she sometimes serves sweeter items like zucchini or cranberry-orange muffins with hot soups like butternut squash or chicken noodle.)
Nostalgia also obviously plays a large part in the duo’s popularity. Heriford remembers the weekly lunch special as “one of my fondest middle and elementary school memories,” and she remembers her aunties talking about eating them at school in Manhattan, Kansas, as early as the ’50s. When she opened Ladybird Diner in 2014, she knew she wanted to have her own seasonal bowl and a roll special on Fridays, from October through March, but it wasn’t until her second winter in operation, in 2015, when it really took off. “I didn’t know if others felt as fondly about it, but the response was huge,” she says.
Heriford’s not the only one to pick up on the nostalgic appeal. In the last couple of decades it’s gotten increasingly easier to find a bowl and a roll outside of school cafeterias and home kitchens, including at Runza restaurants, a regional fast-food chain that offers the combination from October 1 through March 31 at its 85 locations in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Iowa. Runza launched its annual chili and cinnamon roll special in 2007, when it got the rights to the beloved cinnamon roll recipe from Lincoln, Nebraska’s defunct Miller & Paine department store, where it was served in the fifth-floor tea room. (Though the fast-food chain stopped serving the Miller & Paine version after a few years in favor of a more consistent recipe, fans can still order the original through the online Runza shop.)
“It’s probably the strongest engagement that Runza gets on social media when chili and cinnamon rolls come back on our menus,” says Becky L. Perrett, director of marketing at Runza, who grew up eating bowl and a roll in Lincoln, Nebraska. “We give all the credit to the fabulous lunch ladies back in the day for coming up with the pairing,” she adds. “We’re just hopping on the bandwagon of something that is unique, and leverages a couple of homemade items that we love.”
Thanks to the chain, skeptics from far and wide have been able to partake in the culinary tradition. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still irk skeptics. Every year, when Heriford announces the special’s return at Ladybird on Twitter and Instagram, comments in the posts from both fans and opponents tend to get heated.
How to eat it
Even among those who agree that chili and cinnamon rolls work in concert, there’s still contention over how exactly they should be consumed. “It’s a very divisive topic whether you eat them separately, like one after the other, or if you dip,” says Perrett. “That’s a conversation that you can have for a very long time with someone.” There are even those who like the chili served over the cinnamon roll, a hardcore approach.
“I love that everyone has their own ritual — it’s something we have in common but enjoy in our own unique ways,” says Heriford. “I’ve been known to dip, though I’m more of an alternator. But I have to end with a bite of cinnamon roll.”
Though Schneider thought the combination was a little out there when he first came to Kansas to work at Carriage Crossing, he gave it a chance — after all, he grew up with lunch ladies who paired chili with peanut butter sandwiches in St. Louis, and his staff think he’s “crazy” when he has it for lunch. He’s since “learned to embrace the chili and cinnamon roll combo,” even enjoying it occasionally himself. “I guess I am now a true Kansan.”
More places to try bowl and a roll
Located in downtown Wichita, Kansas, Caesar’s Table is known for serving all manner of American comfort food, including coconut fried catfish, fried chicken, and meatloaf. Bowl and a roll is the Friday buffet special, so you can serve up your chili and cinnamon roll however you see fit.
125 N. Market Street, Wichita, KS 67202
If you’re looking for a bowl and a roll in Lincoln, Nebraska, cozy up to the diner counter at Tina’s Cafe just west of the Irvingdale neighborhood. The chili is topped with a heap of cheddar cheese and the menu boasts a “huge cinnamon roll” made from scratch.
616 South Street, Lincoln, NE 68502
Come wintertime, Casey’s Bakery makes the most of the chilly weather with a Chili Bash every Thursday for lunch. Stop in at the bakery’s deli — both are located in the Centre Mall in downtown Sioux Center, Iowa — for all-you-can-eat chili and cinnamon rolls.
251 N Main Avenue, Sioux Center, IA 51250
Anna Archibald is a freelancer based in Lawrence, Kansas, who grew up dipping cinnamon rolls and carrot sticks in chili in the school cafeterias of Neodesha, Kansas.