FREEMAN — The skies were a little extra smoky and the city of Freeman a little more packed on Saturday for the third annual South Dakota Chislic Festival.
Nearly 10,000 visitors flocked to the Freeman Prairie Arboretum to celebrate South Dakota’s official state nosh, following the festival’s 2020 cancellation in the midst of the pandemic.
“We are wide, wide open, and it feels really good,” said Colleen Schultz, last year’s president of the Chislic Festival’s board. “(Visitors) have been smiling since 10 o'clock this morning. They're giving me the thumbs up, and that feels great. That's why we do this.”
Schultz said volunteers come from all over the area to help, and visitors come from all over the globe, including South Africa and Germany.
Freeman, dubbed the Chislic Capital of America, lies at the center of what’s known as the Chislic Circle — an area of South Dakota where chislic is most easily accessible. Yet, Schultz said that doesn’t necessarily mean that Freeman is any more special than other area towns.
“We're not any more or less important than any of the other small towns whose heritage is similar to ours,” Schultz said. “This just happens to be kind of a ‘throw a dart in the middle of it’ and you land in Freeman.”
The festival defines chislic as “small cubes of meat on a 6- to 8-inch wooden skewer,” noting that the meat is traditionally lamb or mutton, deep-fat fried and seasoned with garlic salt.
However, vendors are encouraged to explore the versatility of chislic, and create other consumables using chislic as a staple.
A presentation on the history of chislic acknowledged that while there is a traditional definition of chislic, it doesn’t have to fit that to be considered chislic.
“Traditionally speaking, the majority of people (eating chislic) were Sunni Muslim. Of course with dietary restrictions, they’re not going to be cooking pork,” said Ian Tuttle, a historian at the festival who gave presentations on the dish’s history. “It all depends on what the available materials are, and whatever preferences you have.”
Marnette Hofer, executive director and archivist for Freeman’s Heritage Hall Museum, said chislic could be broadly interpreted as just meat on a stick. However, she said there are limits.
“The very first year, we had somebody who wanted to make alligator chislic, and we said ‘eh, that’s going too far,’’ Hofer said.
Ben’s Brewing Co., of Yankton, took the liberty to experiment and ran with it. They developed a chislic-inspired blonde ale, called Slic (as in chi-slic), with hints of salty cracker flavors to pair with your meal, special for the festival.
“It was developed in the last couple months and tried out at a couple bars before bringing it to the festival,” Ben Hanten, owner of Ben’s Brewing Co., said. “You can bring something people know or you can bring something that fits the event.”
Though a chislic-flavored beer was not eligible for an award, it was arguably one of the most popular items there.
Hanten said they brought double the amount of the ale that organizers had recommended, and had still tapped out by 5 p.m.
The festival awarded two vendors for their chislic, breaking it down into a traditional category, and a “new age nosh” category, which aimed at the nontraditional use of chislic.
Pietz’s Kuchen Kitchen won the “new age nosh” category for their chislic pizza dish, while Sheep Flockers won the award for their traditional chislic.
The festival has come a long way since its start in 2018. The first Chislic Festival was held at the city’s baseball and softball fields plus part of the park across the street. After being slammed by an unexpected crowd, the festival moved to the arboretum grounds to better accommodate the popularity of the event.
The new venue features much more open space for vendors and attendees, a permanent bandshell for live music and awards, amphitheater seating for listeners and a larger, air-conditioned building for volunteers to take a break.
Changing venues has helped a more productive flow to the event, according to Schultz. She still emphasized the importance of the volunteers and vendors to the event.
“Every organizer wants every volunteer, every vendor, to know how very valuable they are to the success of this festival," she said.
Schultz said the board will hold wrap-up meetings in the coming weeks to analyze feedback from this year’s event before making any comments on next year’s festival.