Chislic is the most delicious traditional dish you’ve never heard of … unless you’re from South Dakota, in which case, it’s the center of your social life. In 2018, the state legislature passed a bill, subsequently signed by the governor, to make chislic the state’s “official nosh.”
Within the southeastern corner of South Dakota lies the Chislic Circle, which has the small town of Freeman as its center, and encompasses the area that falls roughly within a 30-mile radius. Freeman is commonly believed to be the point of origin of the dish in the U.S., and now holds an annual festival in its honor.
What Is Chislic?
A variation on the concept of the shish kebab, this skewered dish is quite specific in its geography, but as with all things, the faithful may be divided over how exactly it should be prepared.
Eaten as either an appetizer or a main dish, chislic is typically skewered cubes of lamb or mutton, either deep-fried or grilled. A typical “stick” is six to eight inches long and includes four to six cubes of meat. Some restaurants might serve the cubes loose on a plate with a toothpick stuck in each, like hors d’oeuvres, but that’s liable to raise the hackles of a purist.
Andrea Baer, a small-business consultant, is a board member for the annual South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman. She was born and raised in Freeman and still lives in the house her Danish forebears lived in when they immigrated. She’s a diehard fan of chislic, and her son even raises lamb.
“If I am going out to have chislic, I expect it to come on a skewer,” she said. “Garlic salt, saltine crackers, and that’s it.”
Lamb or mutton?
“It’s about 50-50 around here,” Baer said. While lamb is fattier and more tender, mutton has more flavor, she said. Venison is also an option, as is beef. But as Baer points out, “those are just beef tips.” But people work with what they have or prefer; she notes the appearance of fish-lic and chicken chislic. Over in Sioux Falls, a restaurant called Urban Chislic serves several varieties of meat, with dry rubs and some sauces on the side.
If you leave South Dakota, though, even to places where sheep are raised, no one’s heard of chislic. How did it happen to land right here in the Circle?
From Russia, With Lamb
In the late 1800s, chislic arrived in the United States with a particular group of immigrants: “Germans from Russia.”
German Mennonites and Hutterites initially fled religious persecution in the 16th century, and migrated farther and farther east over the years, toward the Russian Empire. After 1763, German-born Russian Empress Catherine the Great called on Germans to settle the Russian lands along the Black Sea, as she sought to westernize where her domain pushed back against the Ottoman Empire. Her grandson, Tsar Alexander I, encouraged the same settlements deeper into the Caucasus in the early 1800s.
Those two religious groups, along with more than 100,000 other Germans, eventually settled in agrarian communities throughout the grassland plains or steppe. Sheep were the ideal livestock in the region, and skewering the meat in smaller pieces over a fire was a quick, easy way to prepare it. Shashlik, the name given to the dish, is a word for skewer, originating in Turkic languages in Central Asia, and shares its root with shish kebab, a dish perhaps most commonly associated with the Turks (who also traditionally use sheep’s meat, but also chicken, shish tavuk). Shashlik still survives in Russia today.
But the political climate changed once again, and the second Tsar Alexander pushed Russian nationalism. With the German language and culture of these communities under threat, it was time for another migration. But to where?
The U.S. Congress created the Dakota Territory in 1861, and enacted The Homestead Act of 1862 during the Civil War, making 160-acre plots of public land available to any adult citizen or intended citizen who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government. The vast prairies of the West would be quite familiar terrain to these German Russians, and following some investigating settlers in 1872, many of them made one more big move.
Johann (John) Hoellwarth, born in 1849 to a German Lutheran family in the Crimea, settled just outside of where Freeman is today (and later moved to Freeman itself, where he’s buried). Surely more than a couple of the new immigrants continued to cook the foods that were familiar to them, but in local lore, Hoellwarth is generally credited for bringing chislic—or shashlik—to America.
Besides grilling the meat, a tradition of deep-frying emerged, which called for tallow, rendered lamb fat (as opposed to cooking oils or lard, rendered pig fat).
While saltine crackers weren’t a thing for anyone in the Caucasus, nor for the German Russian settlers, they did often use a piece of flatbread to fold around a hot skewer and pull off the meat. Crackers functioned as a readily available substitute in the U.S., and are now considered an appropriate companion to the dish.
Fried onions on top is common. Garlic salt is still the preferred seasoning in Freeman, although other areas might go for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (near and dear to my Wisconsin heart). Hot sauce is offered in Sioux Falls; eateries in Pierre might even batter the meat before frying.
For all the talk of tradition, everybody does it a little differently. Even in the traditional circles, most chefs and families have special ways of cutting and preparing the meat, making for variation, even if subtle.
Three months after chislic was declared the state nosh, a group in Freeman decided such a dish needed to be celebrated as a community. The South Dakota Chislic Festival is now celebrated annually on the last Saturday in July; this year, it falls on July 31.
From the festival’s website: “The tradition of chislic comes not from cities, the wealthy, or the privileged, but from the rural, hardworking farm tradition of the Germans from Russia people. We thrive on the rural, while building the region through vibrant community.”
But they may have underestimated the size of that community.
“We put together what we thought would be a small main-street festival,” Baer said of the first festival in 2018. “We expected maybe 1,500 people just from our hometown to come. When we realized the interest was bigger than that, we adjusted and found a larger space. The day of the fest, we had planned to open around 4 and close at around 10, and an enormous wave of people came from every direction. We had between 8,000 and 10,000 people show up that first night.”
The next year, they moved to the Freeman Prairie Arboretum, a 40-acre park at the edge of town with much more space, and made it a 12-hour festival. The pandemic put the 2020 festival on hold, but it’s returning for 2021.
Activities begin with the Mutton Run, a 10K/5K run and 1-mile walk sponsored by the Salem Mennonite Home for the elderly. There is a Kids Zone, all-day bingo, raffles, a wood-pellet grill giveaway, plus live music, including local band Mogen’s Heroes and three others. This year there are even helicopter rides.
Freeman’s Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, next to the arboretum, puts on a historical presentation about chislic and the community. Vendors serve abundant chislic sticks, plus ice cream, funnel cakes, and kuchen (kugen), another German-from-Russia dish similar to a fruit custard pie with a sweet dough base. This year, Ben’s Brewing, a craft brewer from 30 miles south in Yankton, is bringing Slic, a blonde ale, made especially for pairing with chislic. The local fire department is also on hand serving domestic beers as a fundraiser.
Finally, there’s a chislic competition. A panel of seven judges, including celebrity chef Keith Breedlove this year, will seek the best chislic among the various secret recipes in two categories: Traditional and New Age Nosh, which allows alternative meats and ingredients.
And most importantly, the festival has ordered 60,000 sticks for the chislic fans.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com