The Definitive & Authoritative History of Chislic
The author of this piece, Marnette D. Hofer, is the archivist and executive director of Heritage Hall Museum and Archives in Freeman. This story was published in the Freeman Courier in a two-part story on June 13 and June 20, 2019
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.”