The Story of Chislic

Freeman, SD - Where the Past Meets the Future, in a Celebration of​ Food, Heritage and Culture

Chislic is a popular food in southeast  South Dakota, and its story traces back to a very specific area of the  state. The town of Freeman is considered to be the center of the  “Chislic Circle,” a term coined by journalist Richard Preheim back in  2005. “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,” wrote Preheim (“The  Chislic Circle,” South Dakota Magazine, July/August 2005). Chislic  consists of small cubes of meat on a 6-8-inch wooden skewer.  Traditionally, the meat is lamb or mutton and the skewers are deep-fat  fried. It is generally seasoned with garlic salt and served with saltine  crackers. Variations to the traditional definition do exist. Different  kinds of meat have been used — most commonly venison, goat or beef; some  prefer grilling to deep-fat frying; others choose not to skewer the  meat and serve it with toothpicks; and various marinades or seasonings  add new and interesting flavors to this traditional fare. 


But who came up with this “culinary curiosity” and what are its true origins? 


Meat on a Stick


Meat  on a stick is not a new concept, nor is it unique to any one area. Some  say that as soon as the mythological Greek Titan Prometheus gave fire  to the nations, they simultaneously learned to cook meat on a skewer,  but each in their own way. Truth be told, meat on a stick has been found  all over the world for centuries, a simple and ancient dish of nomads  and herdsmen. In the Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press,  1999), Alan Davidson writes, “The custom of roasting meat in small  chucks on a skewer seems to be very ancient in the Near East. Part of  the reason for this may have to do with the urban nature of the  civilization there. In Europe the population was largely agricultural  and people would butcher a farm animal and roast whole joints from it;  but in the Near East they would go to a butcher’s shop and buy smaller  cuts.” The author goes on to explain that fuel sources were  superabundant in Europe, so Europeans were more apt to bake or roast  large pieces of meat, while in the Near East, with fuel in short supply,  the meat was prepared in smaller pieces.


The Near East and the Ottoman Empire


And  so, we turn our attention to the Near East. According to the  Encyclopedia Britannica, this term “was coined in the 19th century when  Westerners divided the ‘Orient’ into three parts: the Near East, the  Middle East, and the Far East. The Near East included the Ottoman Empire  and the Balkans, while the Middle East ranged between the Persian Gulf  and Southeast Asia, and the Far East encompassed Asian countries facing  the Pacific Ocean." HIstory.com notes that the Ottoman Empire of the  Near East “was one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in  world history. Many historians regard the Ottoman Empire as a source of  great regional stability and security, as well as important achievements  in the arts, science, religion and culture.” Within this region, we  find many words representing “meat on a stick,” but only one, “shashlik”  (or shashlik, shishlik) can be identified as a precursor to southeast  South Dakota’s “chislic.” 


The Caucasus and the Crimean Tatars


The  Caucasus region is credited with being where the term “shashlik”  originated. At the border of Europe and Asia, a wide isthmus situated  between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Caucasus is home to the Caucasus  Mountains, including Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. Because it is  a strategically crucial region as one of only two ways to reach the  Middle East from Europe, the Caucasus region has been a battlefield in  nearly every century. Tatar (or Tartar) is a general term for all  Turkic-speaking nomads, and nomadic Tatars once ruled much of Central  Asia, including the Caucasus region. Crimeans Tatars, Cumans and  Kipchaks lived in the region, as did the various tribes of the  Circassian nation. The word “shashlik” is from the Turkic language group  spoken by the Crimean Tatars and refers to “something on a skewer.”  “Shish” means skewer (as in “shish kebobs”)(“Culture and Life,” Union of  Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign  Countries, 1982). As Muslims of the Islamic faith, the Crimean Tatars  prepared lamb for their shashlik, skewering small chunks of meat and  cooking it over a fire.


The Germans in Russia


In  the mid-18th century, Empress Catherine the Great came to power in  Russia. A German-born princess, Catherine was determined to westernize  and expand the Russian Empire. She turned to her fellow German  countrymen, offering them various rights and privileges outlined in her  Manifesto of 1763, if they would come and colonize her lands. At the  time, large regions of Germany were reeling from years of war, difficult  economic conditions and religious intolerance, and over 100,000  German-speaking immigrants heeded her invitation and chose to start over  in Russia. Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774  legitimized and secured Catherine’s power, allowing her to push back the  Ottoman Empire and annex the Crimea in 1783 (Carolyn Harris, “When  Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea and Put the Rest of the World on  Edge” Smithsonian.com, March 2014). Then in 1803, Czar Alexander I,  Catherine’s grandson, issued another decree enticing foreigners to  settle the Black Sea area of South Russia, extending into the Caucasus.  Once again, German-speaking immigrants accepted the invitation and made a  new home in South Russia. But promises are made to be broken and by the  1870s, attitudes had changed, privileges were revoked and Czar  Alexander II’s program of Russian nationalization threatened the German  culture and identity these German immigrants worked hard to preserve.  Seeking better opportunities and religious freedom, and lured by  America’s Homestead Act of 1862, thousands of families left Russia to  once again begin anew, this time in America. They became known as  “Germans from Russia.”  


Shashlik comes to Dakota Territory


In  1872, the first of the Germans from Russia arrived in Dakota Territory.  Many more followed throughout the next few decades. The immigrants came  as far west as the railroad would take them, landing in the territorial  capital of Yankton and heading north to file their homestead claims and  settle on the wide open prairies. Then in 1879, the Chicago, Milwaukee  & St. Paul Railway Company extended their line from Hull, Iowa, to  Dakota Territory, and the town of Freeman was founded. Among the Germans  from Russia immigrants who settled this area were groups of Lutherans,  Reformed, Catholics, Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites.  


There  are no definitive records that indicate who introduced shashlik to this  area but it seems that one of the immigrants brought knowledge of this  dish and shared it, and slowly a tradition began. Shashlik or “chislic”  became known as a food that was served as a celebration with neighbors,  especially following harvest. By the early 1900s, it was being served in  various bars and local eating establishments. 


Oral history  often gives Johann Hoellwarth (1849-1919) credit for introducing  “chislic” to the area. Hoellwarth was part of the Lutheran Heilbronn  congregation southwest of Freeman when he came to Dakota Territory from  the Crimea in the 1870s.  As a carpenter by trade who had a business on  Freeman’s Main Street, it is reasonable to assume that Johann might have  done work for the Crimean Tatars while in Russia. Ukrainians often  cooked shashlik alongside their Tatar neighbors and he may have learned  how to fix shashlik. 


But upon arriving on the treeless plains of  Dakota Territory, anyone who wanted to serve shashlik had a problem.  How would they grill the meat without trees for wood to build a fire?  The German immigrants were resourceful folks, and the answer was  obvious: they would not grill it, they would fry it in the lard (oil) of  the sheep they butchered.


In Russia, shashlik meat was often  marinated for hours in onions and other seasonings before being threaded  onto a metal skewer. It was served with flatbread. In America, the  Germans from Russia came to substitute garlic salt for the marinade,  thin wooden skewers for metal, and saltine crackers for flatbread. 


It  is not hard to imagine how a person with a thick German brogue might  have pronounced shashlik (or shishlik) back in the late 1800s, and how,  over the decades that followed, others Americanized both the spelling  and pronunciation to become “chislic.” 


Back in Russia, once the  Caucasus and Crimea were annexed, the elite of Russia began to vacation  in these regions and shashlik began to spread across Russia. By the  1910s it was a staple in St. Petersburg restaurants, and by the 1920s,  it was all over urban Russia (revolvy.com). During the Soviet era, it  was impossible to buy lamb meat, so the cuisine adapted to what was  available -- beef and later, poultry and fish (people-travels.com).  Because of the many variables involved -- the type of wood used in the  grill, the temperature of the coals, ingredients and timing of the  marinade process, and the preparation of the meat — making shashlik was  more of an event than just a food. Cooking it was a social experience.  According to Anna Kharzeeva, author of the Soviet Diet Cookbook on  russiabeyond.com, it became so popular in Russia that “shashliking was a  competitive sport!” Today, many Russian cities  have sashlyhnayas (shashlikcafes).


Chislic Comes of Age in America


During  its first 100 years in America, chislic became a popular food for those  who grew up in and near the “Chislic Circle.” Like a pebble tossed into  a pond, the chislic tradition began to ripple in an ever-increasing  circle. It was served in bars and restaurants and became a popular  choice for gatherings of family and friends. It was and is a “must try”  food one introduces to visitors of the area. For locals, it may be a  weekly food, while for those who have left for other areas it is part of  “coming home.” But in the last several decades, the popularity of  chislic has spread beyond the fabled “Chislic Circle” and today, one can  find chislic in bars and restaurants across South Dakota.  Traditionalists, though, insist that one must return to the Chislic  Circle for “real” chislic.


In the spring of 2018, the South  Dakota State Legislature passed Senate Bill 96 to declare chislic the  South Dakota State Nosh. “Nosh” means simply “food or snack.” This  declaration inspired locals living in the Chislic Circle to pursue  hosting a chislic festival in Freeman. Founders planned for a festival  celebrating chislic and craft beers, with entertainment for the entire  family. They planned for perhaps 2-3,000 attendees. 


July 28,  2018, was a beautiful day in Freeman, South Dakota, and hordes of eager  chislic-eaters descended upon the little town of 1300 for the South  Dakota Chislic Festival. Officials estimated that around 8-10,000 people  attended the festival, and the congestion forced many to change their  plans and seek their favorite food elsewhere. Restaurants and grocery  stores in and beyond the Chislic Circle sold out of almost every stick  of chislic available. In response to this overwhelming success, the  South Dakota Chislic Festival non-profit board set to planning the  second festival in a much larger space, with more chislic and more of  everything else. ​Thousands are expected to return to Freeman on  Saturday, July 27th, 2019, for the second annual festival of a “culinary  cuisine” that began many centuries ago as, quite simply, “meat on a  stick.”

Our South Dakota museum has a huge archive on the story of chislic.

Our South Dakota museum has a huge archive on the story of chislic.

The “South Dakota Chislic Festival” is Back!

Uniting heritage and foods at the heart of the “Chislic Circle” of South  Dakota lore - the “South Dakota Chislic Festival” is back!


The  2019 festival took place on Freeman’s Prairie Aboretum right next door  to the museum. There were a variety of food vendors there selling all  sorts of great food including -- of course! -- lots of chislic! There  were chislic competitions, craft beers from across the state, as well as  great music and a variety of other activities.


Watch for 2020 information and learn more at:  https://www.sdchislicfestival.com/ and follow on Facebook!  

 

  • Meat & Tea | Favorite Food Pastimes in the North Caucasus, a.k.a., Shashlik and Chai PODCAST:   ​https://caucastalk.com/42-2/
  • The  Chislic Circle: The Story of How German Settlers Brought Shashlik to  South Dakota with Special Guest Marnette from Heritage Hall Museum
    Quiz:  What do the North Caucasus, Germany, and South Dakota have in common?  Yep: MEAT. Today we hear from our wonderful guest Marnette about how a  fascinating turn of history led Germans settlers in Russia out to the  territory that became South Dakota. And with them they brought the  wonderful tradition of shashlik—but with a German accent. That’s right,  “chislic,” the little known but GROWING tradition of cooked meat,  prairie-style. Our guest is director and archivist for Heritage Hall  Museum in Freeman, South Dakota. And she’s a lot of fun, we think you’ll  agree.​ PODCAST: https://caucastalk.com/46-2/
  • The Chislic Circle, By Rich Preheim, South Dakota Magazine READ ARTICLE HERE: https://www.southdakotamagazine.com/chislic

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