Jerry Nelson: Chislic Fest
Freeman, South Dakota is a tidy prairie town of about 1,500. There are many things to recommend Freeman, one of them being its reputation as the center of the chislic universe.
My first experience with chislic happened at the South Dakota State Fair when I was a boy. A sumptuous aroma drew me to a booth where they were selling a fried meat treat. I ordered some and was relieved to learn that it was served on a wooden skewer and not on a chisel.
I took one bite and was hooked; chislic became one of my favorite food groups. And I wasn’t alone. In 2018, the South Dakota State Legislature officially proclaimed chislic as the State Nosh.
Chislic is traditionally a skewer laced with chunks of mutton or lamb. It can be grilled or fried and is often served with a generous sprinkle of garlic salt.
When Freeman held its third annual South Dakota Chislic Festival, I was drawn to it like a raccoon to a sweetcorn patch.
The Chislic Festival featured live music, a capacious beer tent and a score of chislic vendors. But before I ate, I decided to learn more about chislic by listening to a talk titled “From Russia with Love; the History of Chislic,” presented by Marnette Hofer and Ian Tuttle.
I chatted with Marnette, who is among the group of locals who brought the Chislic Festival to life.
“When the state legislature made the proclamation some of us in the community thought it would be fun to hold a chislic fest in Freeman,” Marnette said. “We threw the event together in a couple of months. We thought that perhaps 2,000 people would come. Then it looked like we might get 4,000 people. In the end, more than 10,000 came. Our original venue was much too small, there were parking issues, and vendors ran out of chislic. It was chaos, but we knew that we were onto something.”
Ian, who spent some quality time living in the Caucuses, gave a comprehensive account about chislic’s genesis. He wore a traditional 19th century Cossack outfit which included a large woolly hat that caused his head to resemble that of a bear.
“German Russians have a deep tradition of eating lamb or mutton that has been skewered and grilled,” Ian said. “Chislic comes from the German word shashlik, which means meat on a skewer.”
Ian explained how chislic made its way to America, a tale that involved Catherine the Great, the Ottoman Empire, the spice trade and the Silk Road, ethnic and religious persecution, Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act, and 100,000 German Russians emigrating to the Midwest. You know, the usual ho-hum historical stuff.
Some of those German Russian émigrés settled in the Freeman area during the late 1800s, bringing along their tradition of grilling cubes of lamb on a skewer.
The part of Ian’s presentation that interested me the most was its conclusion, when he handed out samples of chislic that had been prepared in the traditional manner that’s still being used in the Caucuses. But instead of cooking the meat on weenie wooden skewers, Ian used a pair of long, narrow swords. I’m guessing that the swords were multi-purpose tools.
The mutton had been marinated in a vinegar sauce that contained such exotic ingredients as Turkish bay leaves and Aleppo pepper. The meat was slightly tart, with distant echoes of sunny alpine meadows and ancient trade routes.
While I was learning about the origins of chislic, my wife, sensibly, went to a vendor and purchased a quantity of the stuff. We sat in the beer tent – I didn’t want to disrespect local customs, so I had a brewski with my chislic – and watched as the crowd grew exponentially. It wasn’t long before the booth operated by the South Dakota Chislic Festival Board sported a line of people that appeared to stretch for half a mile.
I went to the back of the booth and chatted with Lee, a young guy who was part of the crew that was operating a bevy of fryers. Lee works at the local Vermeer factory and was one of the 240 volunteers who helped make the Chislic Festival happen.
“There has been a line ever since we opened,” Lee said when asked how business had been. “Freeman is a great little town. This festival is a big deal for us.”
“The response to this year’s festival has been overwhelming,” said Marnette as she gazed out at the throng.
Not bad for a humble little skewer of meat that came to America from the Black Sea region and made a new life for itself as a yummy Midwestern treat.
If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.