You can trace Iowa's taste for chili and cinnamon rolls back to elementary school lunch
Editor's note: This story originally published in February 2019.
Marietta Abarr was a newly-single mother of seven kids in 1944. To support her family, the 35-year-old took a job for $12.50 a week as school cook in the small southwest Iowa town of Clearfield.
Over three decades working on and off at the school, Abarr became a local legend for her made-from-scratch meals. And when nearly 200 people gathered in the fall of 1987 to celebrate “Marietta Abarr Day" — more than a decade after her retirement — one meal was mentioned as an all-time favorite: chili and cinnamon rolls.
Decades after her death in 1995, Abarr's neighbors, family and former students in Clearfield still savor recollections of the smell that filled the school building on the days it was served.
Delicious and 'cost-effective'
Separately, we know chili and cinnamon rolls are classic dishes but rarely served in a pair.
Together, it's more of a Midwestern meal — one that elicits strong feelings and a Pavlovian response from many Iowans who first got a taste for the savory and sweet pairing in elementary school.
Darcy Maulsby, writer, historian and an author of A Culinary History of Iowa who's written about the tradition of chili and cinnamon rolls, believes the limitations school cooks often faced led to the popularization of the dish.
"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 said. "Bulk hamburger, bulk dried beans, products like that. 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.
"I'm guessing somewhere along the line the savvy cook looked at the ingredients available to them and thought, 'What could we make with these items?' And I'm guessing that's where chili and cinnamon rolls came from."
Ann Feilmann is chief of the Bureau of Nutrition and Health Services in Iowa’s Department of Education. She said chili and cinnamon rolls offer a win-win for districts and students — delicious and "cost-effective."
“Students liked dunking the cinnamon roll in the chili, so that is one reason they were served together," she said. "Back in the day, the cinnamon rolls were larger with frosting and students liked them, so participation increased on days when this menu was offered.
"Years ago, more schools did their own baking and had staff available to make them, so it was cost-effective."
It also helped schools meet daily nutritional guidelines that included "one serving of a bread or grain product” and at least “two ounces daily of protein-rich foods," according to a 1946 Register story.
An Iowa tradition
Today, restaurants and cafes around the state offer chili and cinnamon rolls during winter months or offer modern takes on the traditional meal. For its January burger of the month, The Boulder Tap House in Ames served a chili burger on a cinnamon roll bun.
"We all grew up with that combination," said Lindsay Galvin, Boulder Tap House assistant general manager.
In Centre Mall in Sioux Center, Casey's Bakery hosts a "Chili Bash" every Thursday, offering all-you-can-eat chili and cinnamon rolls. Mayberry's Coffe House in Osceola offers chili and cinnamon rolls every Wednesday.
"It speaks to the fact that we hang on to our heritage," Maulsby said. "This is something that generations of folks have grown up with. They've passed that love on to their kids and their grandkids. It's fun in this ever-changing world to have some of these touchpoints where you're grounded in some things that have some heritage."
Chili and cinnamon rolls have been a highlight of the annual Bike Ride to Rippey, the 24-mile round-trip bicycle ride each February that takes riders from Perry to Rippey and back again.
But you needed to get to Ethel Correy's house in Rippey early if you were going to feast, Register reporter Tim Brown wrote when he covered the ride in 1998.
“Ethel, who turns 92 two days after BRR this year,” Brown wrote, “invites well-behaved bikers to help her celebrate. She usually makes enough rolls to last the day, but get there early if you want some of her chili.”
Correy would see another seven BRRs before her death at age 99 in 2005. In her obituary, it was noted that Correy was well known for her “excellent cooking and for 15 years made chili and cinnamon rolls for the BRR ride.”
Correy's daughter, Nora Schlarbaum, is now 87 and living in Ames. Though they've departed from Rippey, her family still eats chili and cinnamon rolls together, just as they served the BRR riders for years.
Make it for yourself
If you want to prepare chili the exact way Abarr made it for her Clearfield students, here’s the recipe. You may want to cut it down a little bit, as it's meant to serve 100 people.
“Brown 10 pounds ground beef and 2½ cups of chopped onions. Simmer until beef is tender. Make paste of 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water, and add it to the beef mixture. Add 6 quarts of beans, 3 quarts of tomato puree, ¼ cup of salt and 5 tablespoons of chili powder. Cook 1 to 1 ½ hours on low heat.” When ready, invite your school over for lunch.
As for the cinnamon rolls, Sarah Michaelsen of Ankeny shared this recipe in 2008. It won a blue ribbon in the Tone's Cinnamon Roll Contest at that year at the Iowa State Fair.
Sarah Michaelsen’s Cinnamon Rolls
3/4 cup butter
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup mashed potatoes, made from 2–3 baking potatoes
1 cup hot potato water
1 cup hot water
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 eggs, beaten
7-8 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons Tone’s cinnamon
3 cups powdered sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons milk
- Combine butter, salt, sugar, and hot water, mashed potatoes, and hot potato water, into a bowl and stir until the butter melts.
- In a separate bowl, combine the yeast with the warm water and allow time to activate. Add the beaten eggs to the cooled potato water, then add the yeast and stir. Next, add flour to the water mixture, one cup at a time, stirring after each cup, until a soft dough forms.
- Turn out onto a floured surface and start kneading until smooth, about seven minutes. Place dough into a greased bowl, turning to grease all sides. Cover, and let rise until double, about 1 hour.
- Roll dough into a long rectangle and spread softened butter over top. Combine cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over top of dough. Roll up jelly-roll style, long way, and cut into about 24 equal pieces. Place rolls into two, 9x13-inch pans. Cover and let rise until double, about 30 minutes. Bake in a 350-degree oven until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.
- Let rolls cool for about 10 minutes. Combine frosting ingredients and spread over rolls.