“Eat Like a Local”- Midwestern Favorites

Have you heard of chili and cinnamon rolls?  The response to this question is either one of disgust or one of enthusiasm.  I, for one, grew up with chili and cinnamon rolls being served together.  It was part of our school lunch program and church fundraisers in our area, so I didn’t think anything of it…until the last few weeks, when I found out that chili and cinnamon rolls is not a hometown favorite everywhere, even within Dubuque County!

Come along this week as we explore some unique Midwestern favorite foods that you’ll hear about only in the Midwest!

Chili and Cinnamon Rolls

Do people actually dip a cinnamon roll in the chili?  Is it eaten after the chili as a dessert? 

These are the typical questions that are asked after explaining the chili and cinnamon roll pairing.  Generally speaking, people do not dip the cinnamon roll in the chili, but rather eat it afterward to finish off the meal.  Most everyone who recognizes chili and cinnamon roll combination first had it at school lunch, though it rarely shows up on the menu anymore due to the increased USDA guidelines around school lunch and nutrition.  Schools from Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas are most likely to have served chili and cinnamon rolls together, and it is rarely heard of outside of this region.  Cinnamon and spices are a flavor combination in foods among different cultures, but why school lunch took on the chili and cinnamon roll pairing remains a mystery.

Runza, a popular Nebraska restaurant chain, still offers the item on their menu as a combo.  No one knows where it started for sure, or why, but it is still a favorite among Midwesterners today.

Tater Tot Casserole

There is somewhat of a debate on the use of the term ‘casserole’ or ‘hot dish.’  Most agree there is a difference, but what the difference is, is up for grabs.  What can be agreed upon is that this one pot meal has become a Midwestern trademark from home kitchens to church potlucks.

Tater tot casserole is a common variation of the traditional ‘hot dish’ found throughout the Midwest.  Featuring ground or shredded meat, a starch (such as a potato or noodle), frozen vegetables, canned soup, and topped with a crunch (potato chips, chow mien noodles, or French fried onions) -the casserole has become a favorite among Midwestern families.  The concept is attributed to budget-conscious farm wives wanting to stretch a pound of meat among many eaters, yet still offering a complete meal.  Tater tot casserole does just that!

In 1934 Campbell’s introduced their Cream of Mushroom soup, which quickly became the binding agent for many of these casserole dishes.  The tater tot casserole started shortly after, in 1953, when the Ore-Ida brothers needed something to do with the leftover scraps from their frozen French fries.  The brothers ground them together and deep fried the compressed potato nuggets to create the beloved tater tot we know today. It wasn’t long after that housewives started using this new starch to top their infamous hot dishes.

Pickle Wraps

This is one of those ‘only in Iowa’ things that if you ask someone from outside the state, they will look at you sideways.  The traditional pickle wrap has a slice of ham spread with cream cheese and wrapped around a whole pickle.  The wrapped pickle log is then sliced into bite sized pieces and served as an appetizer.  The combination likely has German roots, where the word ‘pickle’ derives its origin.

However, the history of pickles in the U.S. is heavily tied to the Jewish community, who were known for their half sour and full sour pickles.  Even today, pickles are still served alongside sandwiches as a palate cleanser from traditional delicatessens.


The recipe is on the box, but this crispy, chocolatey, peanut buttery treat has made its place among Iowa homes.  Common at potlucks and family gatherings, the scotcheroo modifies the traditional rice krispie treat by adding peanut butter, butterscotch, and frosting it with a layer of melted chocolate.  Delicious!

The scotcheroo made its appearance in the 1950’s and ‘60’s on the box of Rice Krispies cereal.  At the time, made-from-scratch cooking was the norm, and more progressive home cooks were using processed store-bought ingredients like Rice Krispies.  Taking a recipe off the box in that era would be considered cutting edge, so making scotcheroos would be considered more advanced than homemade apple pie.

The traditional Rice Krispie treat also traces its roots back to Iowa and was first created by Iowa State alumni, Mildred Day.  Mildred began working for Kelloggs as soon as she graduated college in 1928 and crafted the treat around 1939.  At the time, the Camp Fire girls organization in Kansas City was looking for a fundraising idea, so Kelloggs decided to send Margaret to make and ‘test try’ her newly invented ‘marshmallow squares’ as the Camp Fire girls fundraiser.  Margaret made batch after batch of the treats, the mothers would wrap them, and the Camp Fire girls sold them door-to-door.  The fundraiser was a big success and the Rice Krispie recipe was first published on the box in 1941.

Whether it is trying out chili and cinnamon rolls, enjoying a sweet scotcheroo, or indulging in a tater tot casserole, we hope you will enjoy some great Iowa favorites this holiday season! If you know of any fun Iowa-centric or Midwestern foods you would like to see featured here, let us know in the comments!  We would love to feature your family favorite!

Priority projects will be selected at today’s Dubuque Eats Well meeting.  All are welcome to attend.  The November 20th meeting will be at Mercy Hospital Ballroom 6D from 1pm-3pm.

Happy eating!

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