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The Chislic Circle

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2005 issue of  South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.

"A lot of people don't even ask what the specials are; they just want chislic," said Melissa Svartoein. Svartoein worked at Papa's Restaurant in Freeman when she was a student at the University of South Dakota.

 

Open a map of South Dakota, place the point of a protractor on Freeman, on U.S. Highway 81 a couple of inches north of Yankton, and draw a circle with a radius representing about 30 miles. That is the Chislic Circle, the home of a culinary curiosity. 

If you live there –– maybe in Marion or Menno, Parker or Parkston –– you probably are acquainted with chislic, a simple dish of bite-sized chunks of sheep meat on wooden skewers, deep-fat fried or grilled. Other parts of the world may have their kebabs of mutton and other meats, but chislic seems distinctive to southeastern South Dakota.

For decades a mainstay at cafes, bars, fairs and celebrations, it historically has been enhanced only by salt or garlic salt and served with saltines and, if you are so inclined, washed down with a cold beer. Recent years have seen the introduction of chislic in various marinades and with various sauces.

However it’s prepared, chislic sells. Papa’s Restaurant in Freeman serves up to 3,000 chislic sticks a week. Rachel Svartoein, whose grandfather sold chislic at a corner store south of Freeman for many years, provided 1,200 sticks for her high school graduation reception. At Marion’s 125th anniversary, the Jaycees sold 4,000 sticks on the first night. The chislic stand at the Turner County Fair in Parker sold 40,000 in 2004.

Chislic is simply an unquestioned thread in certain community fabrics; yet it remains a mystery meal, its origins unsure. Even theories and myths are difficult to find. “I know there are sheep in other places, so why chislic is popular here and not there, I don’t know,” said Papa’s co-owner Susan Letcher.

Even some sheep producers outside the area know little about chislic. “Ask people in Aberdeen, they’ve never heard of it,” said Bill Aeschlimann, a Hurley farmer who is active in national and regional sheep associations. “Ask people in Rapid City, they don’t have a clue.” Attempts to sell chislic have flopped at the Sturgis bike rally because nobody knew what it was.

Scant historical accounts suggest that chislic was introduced in Freeman at least 100 years ago by Russian immigrant businessman John Hoellwarth. But that’s about all anyone knows. “All I can tell you is my dad tells the story how his father, on a day for celebration would buy a couple of young lambs for 50 cents a piece and make chislic,” said grandson Robert Hoellwarth, a retired physician in Vallejo, Calif. 

The Hoellwarths arrived in Hutchinson County in the 1870s from the Crimea of southern Russia, a region where “shashlyk,” cubes of skewered beef, lamb or pork, were grilled over an open fire. Chislic probably evolved from shashlyk, according to Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and food editor of Russian Life magazine. But she and other food experts are not familiar with the South Dakota version.

Whatever its origin, chislic is a distinguishing feature of southeastern South Dakota. Aeschlimann, who has sold it at the Turner County Fair for 20 years, had his first chislic stand at Hurley’s centennial in 1983. “We knew there would be lots of people coming back,” he said. “And what would they think of from their childhood? Chislic.”

Jake Huber ran a chislic stand in Freeman on summer Saturday nights during the 1930s and ’40s, days when farm families came to town for shopping and socializing. “There was such a tremendous amount of people in town on Saturday nights, it didn’t take long to sell out,” said his daughter Nita Engbrecht of Marion. 

The whole family prepared the chislic and cleaned up late Saturday night. Engbrecht’s job, which the health department might frown upon today, was collecting the used skewers, which her father fashioned from bamboo. “Those sticks had to be boiled, dried out and used again and again,” she said.

Among Huber’s patrons was Bill Gering, then a teenaged farm boy. But chislic was not new to him. Several farmers owned a threshing machine together, and when harvest was done, everybody gathered to celebrate. “The men figured out who owed who,” Gering said. Then everybody ate chislic and homemade ice cream.

In Freeman, residents bring out-of-town guests to Papa’s to introduce them to chislic. “Most people like it,” Letcher said. “If they’re here a second night, they come back and have it again.” Papa’s serves five varieties: original, barbecue, lemon pepper, garlic and even one marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and soy sauce. But the original recipe remains most popular, Letcher said. But regardless of how it’s cooked, mutton on a stick remains popular in the Chislic Circle.

Comments

08:24 pm - Mon, March 26 2012
Stella Shaffer said:
It sure was popular at Corn Palace Days. Local kids who weren't spending their allowances on rides and cheap trinkets were loading up on sticks of chislic.
08:17 am - Tue, March 27 2012
John Prien said:
Many of my childhood memories of family reunions in and around Parkston involve chislic. Thanks for a good article that stirred some good memories. Long live chislic!
09:27 am - Fri, June 15 2012
Bruce Tucker said:
I grew up in Huron, in the '60's. The Frosty Creme, by the Plains, Ravine Lake, and Memorial Ball Park, sold baskets of chislic. 3 sticks, for 25 cents - it was great! I wondered why no other place sold it. They do not offer, here, in Wisconsin.
10:01 am - Tue, July 17 2012
Sheila said:
Kaylor Locker processes and sticks the chislic for the businesses mentioned in this article as well as for the Turner County Fair. They also sell chislic at the Locker for those who want to take it home and make it.
05:24 am - Wed, September 19 2012
Lee said:
Keps chislic iss available in grocery stores in SE SD and also available at Pietz's Kuchen Kitchen and South Dakota Product Store right across from the high school on highway 25 in Scotland
06:38 pm - Tue, September 10 2013
Jonell White said:
My earliest memory of chislic goes back to the Turner County fair in Parker, SD. It would have been in the 60's while my grandfather Herman J Weeldreyer was in charge of the horticulture building during the length of the fair. I don't recall how many years he held that position but every year I would go to the fair with 'Opa' and I would eat chislic. The last time I went to the fair was in 2011. The first thing I looked for was the chislic stand and I was not disappointed.
04:03 pm - Sun, December 22 2013
Stephen said:
I lived in Rapid City for my last two years of high school, and my father ran a major convention there, so we spent a lot of time getting to know the local hotel and restaurant proprietors.

I was introduced to Chislic because it was served in the restaurant at the Hilton in downtown Rapid City during the late 80s and early 90s, and for room service at the same hotel. Their version featured Sirloin cubes inside an edible tortilla bowl, with sticks to dip into a variety of sauces. I am now trying to replicate the recipe at home (in Florida). It's a western version of Ethiopian Gored Gored, and I'm currently out of Injera bread.
01:19 am - Fri, January 31 2014
James said:
Being from SD and being ready to prepare some more sheep chislic this story is great. Most don't realize how great chislic is especially the varying meats you can use.
07:50 am - Sat, April 12 2014
Steve Behrens said:
Bert's drive inn on 12th Kiwanis sold Chislic, and had a stand at the Sioux empire fair throughout the 60's and 70's. I got the fun of running it with my sisters and basically missing the fair. Mixed blessing.
08:29 pm - Thu, April 17 2014
frank hecker said:
Chislic, ah yes. I grew up in Sioux Falls and in college we worked in the meat packing plants (Morells and Greenly's) and since we had a little money from the plants frequented the bars. I remember there were a couple of places that served Chislic along with "Red beer" remember that? Anyway tonight I am 66 and living in Az One of my current hobbies is cooking as I am alone and tonight I stirred up a batch of lamb chislic and sirloin chislic. I am eating them as I write this. I got the receipt off the web and I recommend that you lose or use very little "Soy sause" still tastes good but not like when I was there in the 60's. So the sirloin was tougher and less flavorable (I love lamb) and so I prefer the lamb.
Going to S Dak for reunion this summer plan on visiting many chislic places in hopes of opening a sports bar with Chislic and wings in Tucson Az Want to invest? LOL Come join me in the winter time and feel at home. See ya.
Frank (Dad owned Suburban Lanes, Grand dad Weatherwax's men store, that goes a long way back huh?) email me.. frank

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