I’ve bounced around these United States enough to understand how regional taste might fuel culinary tradition. Good Texas BBQ tastes smoky and charred, the sauce heavy with spices that circle the palate in a warm, flavorful hug. Hang out in Utah long enough, and you will find that Jell-O reigns supreme. In some parts of Montana, one may indulge in cuisine that was developed by miners in the 1800s.
My latest discovery of regional fare has me intrigued but confused. This has to do with pairing a bowl of chili with a cinnamon roll. I have a friend from Cheyenne, Wyoming who grew up with this tradition, so it is there where my super non-scientific anecdotal research begins.
The Cowboy State sounds like a place having culinary traditions that require an open flame. I initially envisioned this being executed in a historical sense with the help of a cauldron that had been pulled from a chuckwagon. But how does one make cinnamon rolls on a cattle drive?
Back to Jenny, my Cheyenne friend. She’s tried schooling me about this before by bringing cinnamon rolls to the chili cook-off I hosted over the course of 8 years. But Jenny is partial to baking, and her offering pastry at a party usually comes down to, “Wow, that is so nice. Someone thought of dessert.” Not that I had any. A good host never eats, friends.
Recently, Jenny caught me up on how it’s meant to go down, “You’re supposed to eat them together.”
“Yeah, every time my mom made chili, she made cinnamon rolls.”
“So the cinnamon rolls are the dessert for the chili?”
“No. I dip the cinnamon roll in the chili.”
“I like them with raisins, but I like them without, too.”
“What about icing?”
“Of course icing! Otherwise it’s just a roll!”
Vomit. Frankly the idea of dunking a doughy, icing topped, raisin populated thing into my chili is not appealing to me in the least.
Polarizing Food Traditions
The West is full of mystical open aired lore, and cowboys, and dust. Wyoming sort of embodies all of this, and I have lived on the outskirts of this state for years. Close enough to know a little about it, yet not quite close enough to understand that I need to eat chili with a cinnamon roll.
I had to rope someone else into the fray, just for comparison’s sake. Rachel is from Colorado, but has spent time living in Laramie, and is married to a Wyomingite, “Oh yeah, yeah. The chili and cinnamon roll thing.”
“Is it something you saw in Colorado?”
“No. I had to move to Laramie.”
“Is it good?”
“Well I’m a vegetarian and don’t really go for it, but everyone expects it when there is chili. And everyone loves it.”
“What about the cream cheese icing?”
“People like that and I don’t know why. If I ever try this, there will be no icing.”
I garnered just one more Wyoming native’s opinion on this issue, which was rendered to me as a thumbs down emoji with no other explanation. Clearly, this person’s taste buds have been traumatized and he doesn’t want to discuss the matter any further.
Back to Rachel, who in her capacity as an editor, performs research as a natural reaction to causes of the unknown, and questions that writers like myself have yet to Google. Her sister-in-law is a teacher in Western Nebraska. Chili with a cinnamon roll is on the menu at her school.
Although Nebraska proudly declares this janky meal to be its own, with Iowa joining in the cacophony, the internet tells me that it is also seen in Eastern Washington, parts of Colorado, Montana, and a whole host of other states. This Mashed.com piece gives you the full rundown.
The origins are murky, and this more than likely is not a long-held Wyoming thing, but a random, insidious food tradition that has crept onto the tables of those who will allow it. A cowboy putting a cinnamon roll in his trail chili? Perish the thought. Raisins? I can’t even.
The Curry of the West
Isn’t spicy with a slice of sweet, delivered with a side of starch, actually curry? Bear with me, here. Let’s deconstruct. Cinnamon straddles its use between both savory and sweet dishes, and can be applied to any kind of curry, depending on the taste of the chef. The sweetness in curry might come from coconut milk, or cream, or even granulated sugar, but should have a certain subtlety.
The difference here is how the starch is delivered. You put curry over rice. Naturally that has to morph into some kind of bread to be legitimized in the America that I know. Further, an unhealthy amount of sugar has to be added in order to ruin what might be a fine meal. And there you have it.
If you think about a cinnamon roll without icing, there is still sweet within the folds, but it doesn’t have to be a heavy, gooey sweet to be good. I mean, does it? If you consider the consistency of a traditional Spanish churro, which is a little bit like a crispy “donut stick” (I don’t know what else to call it) sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, my brain starts to get closer to what might work for my own preferences.
I reached out to a classically trained pastry chef. Does she perceive this pairing as a manner in which to ruin chili? “Yes, not to mention whatever you are trying to achieve with the cinnamon roll.”
“I’m relieved to hear that. I want to understand it before I try it.”
“You’re going to try it?”
“Yeah but I want to do it on my own terms, so I’m not going to use a traditional cinnamon roll. At this point I think I might sprinkle some sugar and cinnamon onto a saltine. I’m also going to invent Rocky Mountain Curry, whatever that means.”
“If I could choose a cinnamon-sugar thing to put into chili, under duress, it would be closer to a cinnamon puff pastry.”
“You wouldn’t just get a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and use a bowl of chili as the milk?”
Let the People Decide
So here’s the thing: I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’m going to make someone else do it. While I was writing this drivel, I Googled cinnamon roll recipes, ad nauseum. One specific search on “crispy cinnamon rolls no icing” yielded only images of yeasty, puffy cinnamons rolls with a shit ton of cream cheese icing. I started to feel sick to my stomach.
That’s when I devised a plan to get a group of people to try this monstrosity for me. If you make it about food, and it’s a competition, people will do it. If it’s a little weird but doesn’t have insects, most people will still do it. On Saturday, December 12, 2020 a virtual chili cook-off will take place.
This involves shuttling chili samples around Fort Collins with front porch pick-up and drop-off, but it also involves a judging panel. The criteria will be taste, texture and presentation. But the bonus round question (I don’t know what that means yet) will be “does this chili pair well with a cinnamon roll?”
There are six households involved in this no contact cook-off, and I’m already getting questions about the Scoville scale and how far they can push the heat without decimating the mouths of the judges. They are gonna owe me in some way, I feel.
Each sample bag that is dropped off for tasting will have a homemade cinnamon roll included so that I may receive legitimate feedback during the chili cook-off Zoom call. I just want to watch. But most of all, I just want to know why.
I’ll keep you posted (all three of you).