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The Antelope

Tis’ the season for chili and cinnamon rolls

Runza features a classic Nebraska combination of chili and cinnamon rolls, a popular menu item.


In the midst of November, ‘tis the season for pumpkin spice lattes, hot cider, caramel apple pies, and… cinnamon rolls and chili? 

Even though Midwesterners wouldn’t blink twice at this culinary combination, to an outsider, it is flat-out foreign to pair up the sweet pastry and savory stew (yes, chili is a stew, not a soup). Visitors and residents alike may be wondering where did chili and cinnamon rolls originate and why is it a staple meal for our region?

According to What’s Cooking America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics incorporated a chili recipe into the National School lunch system after World War II in 1949. In the 1960’s, school cafeterias in Washington, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa introduced homemade chili and cinnamon rolls as a regular menu item.

An Omaha Magazine article by Megan Fabry titled “Chili and Cinnamon Rolls: A Legendary Midwestern Combo,” provides more history specific to the Cornhusker State. After the Nebraskan department store Miller and Paine closed, the owners continued their tradition of serving chili and cinnamon rolls through a partnership with Runza, Nebraska’s beloved restaurant which had already been serving chili for over 40 years. It wasn’t until 2007 when the beloved fast food franchise graced their menu with both chili and cinnamon rolls. 

Another obscure origin involves the logging camps of the Great Lakes region pouring leftover chili on top of cinnamon rolls, so the loggers could gain boosts of energy from the hearty meat and sugary frosting. For this reason, this dish is sometimes called a logger’s breakfast.

Believe it or not, cinnamon is not as outlandish as it may seem when mixed with chili. In fact, countless chili cook-offs have proven that chili is a medium for creativity, especially since Cincinnati chili already contains cinnamon. 

Now, we are nearing the question humanity has been asking since some monster decided put pineapple on pizza: do these two foods belong together? Admittedly, I was the otherworldly Midwesterner who accepted their chili and cinnamon roll school lunch, just so she could enjoy the dessert and throw away the chili. Before you sharpen your pitchforks and light your torches, I decided to try it again by visiting Kearney’s Runza, one of the masters of this bizarre delicacy.

After slurping down Runza’s steaming cup of tangy chili and relishing their sweet, sticky rolls, I have concluded that yes, this pair belongs together, despite the odds against them. Like spaghetti, there is an endless amount of strategies regarding how to eat them, but I have settled on dipping the cinnamon roll directly in the chili. The gooey texture and combatting cinnamon flavor harmonize perfectly with the solid kick of the chili’s ingredients. 

My change of heart has caused me to realize that these star-crossed lovers (chili and cinnamon rolls) need to experience the wedding they deserve. This fall and winter season, I urge the non-believers to give them a chance.

 After all, opposites attract.  

To learn more about What’s Cooking America, and about the tradition of chili and cinnamon rolls, visit their website at

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