Regional cuisine is common across the U.S. Étouffée, lobster rolls, Cincinnati chili, scrapple, Chicago deep dish pizza, pork roll, Buffalo wings, Philly cheesesteaks, spoonbread, Johnnycakes, Kansas City barbecue, and Spam musubi all have legions of devoted local fans but are less common the farther you travel from their geographical origins.
There are plenty of regional dishes popular in the Midwest, but only one that is unique to South Dakota: chislic. These cubes of fried or grilled meat were declared the official state nosh by the state legislature in 2018 but remain largely unheard of outside the state borders.
Chislic first appeared in Hutchinson County in eastern South Dakota in the 1870s when German Russian immigrant John Hoellworth brought the dish with him from his native Crimea region. The name derives from “shashlyk,” a Turkish word for skewered meat that also evolved into the more widely-known “shish kebab.” In southern Russia, cubes of skewered beef, lamb, or pork were grilled over an open flame. With a lack of trees on the prairie, homesteading South Dakotans adapted by frying the chunks of meat—typically mutton, thanks to the prevalence of sheep in local ranchers’ livestock herds—in lard or oil. The dish gained popularity in Freeman and surrounding communities in the 1930s, a region that has since become known as “the Chislic Circle.” Much of the credit goes to Jake Huber, who operated a chislic stand in Freeman that attracted farm families from across the region on Saturday nights throughout the summer. They would come to town to go shopping, and stay to socialize and eat. The business was a family affair and grew such a devoted following, they would quickly sell out. Other vendors sprang up, and by the 1940s, chislic was a well-known and beloved regional dish commonly served at bars and county fairs, as well as everyday households.
Nicknamed “mutton on a stick,” chislic was originally prepared using small cubes of mutton or lamb that were skewered and either deep fried or grilled. The secret was cooking them quickly over high heat so they would be browned on the outside and medium rare in the middle. The meat was seasoned with garlic or celery salt and traditionally served with Saltine crackers. Recipes have evolved over the years to include other types of meat, such as beef and venison. It is often served on toothpicks rather than skewers and may be marinated or accompanied by a dipping sauce. Purists insist on washing it down with a cold beer.
Though immensely popular in the Chislic Circle throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, it took a while for chislic to spread to other areas. The Pit Club in Sioux Falls began serving it in 1961, declaring the dish “a new-comer to Sioux Falls…If you have never tried it, you’re in for a treat!” in their local advertising. It soon became a mainstay in Sioux Falls and other towns in eastern South Dakota, but remained virtually unknown in West River for decades. Up until the early ‘90s, few people in Rapid City had ever heard of chislic, and an attempt to introduce it at the popular Sturgis Motorcycle Rally failed because nobody knew what it was. That gradually began to change as word got out, and when the South Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 96 and Governor Dennis Daugaard signed it into law in 2018, chislic was christened South Dakota’s official state nosh. That same year, the inaugural South Dakota Chislic Festival was held in Freeman, the self-described “heart of the Chislic Circle.” Some 8,000 people attended—four times the number officials had expected, and testament to the ongoing popularity of this simple but delicious food.
Today, chislic appears on the menus of many bars and restaurants in the Black Hills. You can find it at Thirsty’s, Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub & Grill, and Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City; the Gaslight Restaurant & Saloon in Rockerville; Spearfish Brewing Company in Spearfish; and Bumpin’ Buffalo Bar and Grill in Hill City, to name just a few places. In fact, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, it’s probably been added to a few more menus in western South Dakota.
If you haven’t tried chislic yet, what are you waiting for?