Chislic Circle: South Dakota town gains fame through first annual Chislic Festival
The quiet South Dakota town of Freeman — population 1,308 — is known as the Chislic capital of the world; yet outside of the 30 mile-radius of this small rural community (often referred to as the Chislic Circle), chislic is a relatively unknown dish.
Traditionally, chislic is salted, cubed mutton served on wooden skewers, deep-fat fried or grilled and served with a side of saltine crackers and a cold beverage.
The history of chislic has a great deal of mystery surrounding it and is frequently debated by the residents of the “Chislic Circle,” which is a 30-mile radius around Freeman that includes Sioux Falls, Marion, Menno, Parker and Parkston.
Many credit Russian immigrant John Hoellwarth for bringing chislic to Freeman in the late 1800s, and since then, it’s tradition for the community celebrate and socialize together by butchering a lamb and serving chislic for a crowd.
The dish is so iconic to the area and so unique to the state of South Dakota that in 2018, the state’s legislators declared chislic the state’s “official nosh.”
Eight miles south of Freeman sits the Meridian Corner — a bar and grill owned by Roland and Jean Svartoien. Located at the junction of Highway 18 and 81, Meridian Corner serves chislic to locals and tourists alike, who stop in to enjoy the traditional Russian/German fare.
“We serve chislic with either lamb or mutton,” said Abby Streyle, Meridian Corner manager. “The difference is really a personal taste preference. Lamb is lean and tender, and mutton is fatty and full of flavor. Both can be enjoyed with Greek salt, garlic salt or our house seasoning.”
When Roland decided to add lamb chislic to the menu five years ago, the restaurant began sourcing meat from local sheep producers. Much like many of the local restaurants, Meridian Corner sources its mutton from the nearby Kaylor Locker, in the tiny town of Kaylor — population 47.
And though the Svartoiens are passionate about the restaurant business, they also have deep roots in agriculture, as well. Roland owns a custom harvesting and a trucking business and grew up watching his own father harvest wheat and run the restaurant.
“Meridian Corner was originally owned by Roland’s parents — Paul and Marceen Svartoien,” Streyle said. “They closed the business in 1989, and it sat empty for 21 years. When Roland’s parents passed away, he purchased Meridian Corner from the estate and reopened the business once again. Today, we enjoy our loyal customers, and our customers enjoy the comfort food, including chislic, that we serve.”
Chislic may be tradition in Freeman, but it’s new and exciting in other parts of the country. Perhaps that’s why Meridian Corner was invited to participate in Flavored Nation in early August. Held in Columbus, Ohio, Meridian Corner joined 49 other restaurants in serving up iconic state dishes for consumers to enjoy.
“Flavored Nation was a two-day event where people paid $45 to try ten meals from 10 different states,” Streyle said. “We were one of two lamb dishes there; the other lamb entree was a chile relleno with lamb meatballs from Colorado.”
Flavored Nation is truly a foodie’s paradise. Other foods offered at the event included deep dish pizza from Illinois, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches from Pennsylvania, chicken fried steaks from Texas, shrimp gumbo from Louisiana, lobster rolls from Maine and even reindeer sausage from Alaska.
“We had so many people who stopped at our booth who had never heard of chislic and were really curious about the history,” Streyle said. “Those of us in the Chislic Circle know chislic is made with lamb, but other places call their beef dishes ‘chislic’ and to us, those are steak tips. It was a neat opportunity to tell people about our state’s history and the unique qualities of traditional chislic.”
Two weeks prior to Flavored Nation, chislic was promoted in Freeman in another big way with the first annual South Dakota Chislic Festival.
“We have a great story to tell with chislic, and when we were looking for ways to attract people to our small community, we wanted to tie together and promote our heritage, the arts, community vibrancy, agriculture and tourism,” said Joshua Hofer, one of the event organizers. “A couple of years ago, Freeman received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which really opened the door for us to host this event.”
The South Dakota Chislic Festival included music, a bouncy castle, a raffle, door prizes and other entertainment. Held on the grounds of the Freeman pool and ballpark, it was free to the public and also featured a cooking contest, with 15 judges including politicians, media and chefs — selecting for best classic sheep, new age nosh (that included beef, deer, goat and buffalo), and the people’s choice.
“We were expecting 1,500-2,000 people, just based off numbers from other summer festivals,” Hofer said. “Within 30 minutes of opening the gate, we had gone from 2,000 people to 8,000 people.”
As the crowds grew and the chislic ran low, people traveled to local restaurants to grab a bite to eat. At the Meridian Corner, it was a packed house.
“We went from just a few people to a packed house within minutes,” Streyle said. “We had a line of people standing outside our drive-in window waiting to be served, and that night we ran through 160 dozen lamb and 120 mutton chislics. Fortunately, we had prepped extra meat in anticipation of the festival, but we still were three dozen short of what we needed.”
“I’m so proud of our crew of volunteers who helped things run smoothly despite the massive crowds,” Hofer added. “We are already gearing up for next year with plans for improvement and expansion. We are looking at expanding the layout, providing different vendor options and bringing in unique entertainment like mutton busting.”
The second annual South Dakota Chislic Festival is scheduled for July 27, 2019, in Freeman. Proceeds of the event benefit the Freeman Community Development Corporation and the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives.
“The vast majority of the lamb served at the first festival came from South Dakota sheep producers,” Hofer said. “We are already receiving calls from vendors who want to come next year and serve lamb chislic, so I see this as an exciting opportunity for local sheep producers who have branded meat programs to gain more notoriety and publicity for their products.”
To learn more about the South Dakota Chislic Festival, go to http://www.sdchislicfestival.com. F