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'Everyone is family when they’re here.' South Dakota Chislic Festival returns to celebrate state nosh

Fourth annual celebration in Freeman again draws thousands

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Ben Visser, right, of Monroe, loads some chislic for serving to Nathan Schrag, of Freeman, at the South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic
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FREEMAN, S.D. — Chislic is traditionally eaten in groups, among friends or family.

That group could be counted in the thousands Saturday, as people from around the state and country converged on the Prairie Arboretum in Freeman to take part in the fourth annual South Dakota Chislic Festival. The event, started in 2018, celebrates the traditional meat-on-a-stick delicacy that continues to enjoy an expanding fanbase in 2022.

Organizers were ready for as many as 10,000 of those fans to show up in Freeman on Saturday to enjoy the food, the fun and community spirit that reflects the social nature of eating chislic, said Andrea Baer, a member of the South Dakota Chislic Festival board of directors.

“When you look back historically, chislic is a very social thing. All the way from when people were immigrating here, they would eat chislic together,” Baer told the Mitchell Republic. “And growing up for all of us here in Freeman, it wasn’t a picnic or a block party. You got together and had chislic.”

Official attendance numbers were not available Saturday.

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The free festival, which took a year off for COVID-19 in 2020 but has come back strong, takes that social aspect and expands it to a larger scale. The event features 13 food vendors, many specializing in or serving some form of chislic. It also features non-food vendors to offer a browsing and shopping experience, helicopter rides and even presentations on the history of the dish and the area where it was cultivated into what it is today.

As served in most of the community within the Chislic Circle, a group of towns that includes Freeman, Menno, Marion and Parker, chislic has traditionally been cubed mutton or lamb served on a short skewer. In that form, it is most often deep fried or grilled and often served with garlic salt and saltine crackers. The dish traces its origins back to immigrants who arrived to the area in the 1800s — the Germans-from-Russia — who laid the groundwork for the traditional form known today.

It has since made a considerable name for itself. The South Dakota Legislature officially designated chislic as its “state nosh” in 2018.

The definition of chislic has evolved over the years to include almost any kind of meat one can think of. Venison and goat chislic are no longer outliers, but are increasing in popularity at a pace equal to that of the long-running traditional style.

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Kathy Kepplinger, center, with Kepp's Chislic, takes an order from a customer in a sea of festival attendees during the 2022 South Dakota Chislic Festival Saturday, July 30, in Freeman. Thousands of visitors were expected at the fourth annual event.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

The yearly competition that crowns the top traditional and new age style chislic at the festival celebrated both styles. The panel at this year’s festival included Rep. Dusty Johnson among the judges, and the festival food vendors all have an invitation to enter their product in the competition.

In the traditional category, which features chislic using sheep, Sheep Flockers out of Parker won the category for a third year in a row. The Big Orange Food Truck of Harrisburg got the top spot in the New Age Nosh category with its marriage of chislic and poutine — bison chislic served with cheese curds, french fries, onions and gravy.

The festival has expanded in popularity since its first go-around in 2018, when organizers were overwhelmed by thousands of visitors, a number far exceeding even optimistic expectations. Now hosted by the Prairie Arboretum, a 40-acre park-like venue on the southwest side of Freeman, the festival has seen curious people come from all over to see what it’s all about.

“Last year we were surprised to discover that there were some people visiting this part of the United States who were from South Africa, and they saw or heard an ad and decided to come to Freeman to check out the Chislic Festival,” Baer said. “They thought it was amazing.”

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Marnette Hofer and Ian Tuttle give a history lesson on the origins of chislic, which go back to the Germans from Russian who immigrated to the area in the 1800s.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

But the festival draws from everywhere, from Freeman on outward. That includes the fellow Chislic Circle communities who send volunteers and whose organizations pitch in to make the festival a more diverse experience. The Menno Volunteer Fire Department serves beer, with tips going back to the department. The Parker FFA chapter hosts bingo games, the proceeds of which go back to their chapter. The Menno Pink Ladies host bean bag tournaments. The Freeman Lions Club hosts a pre-festival pork barbecue at the local community center the night before the festival.

Terah Schoenfish was helping organize the Menno Pink Ladies’ bean bag tournaments Saturday. The festival provides a nice, family-friendly atmosphere where visitors can enjoy a few rounds of games while taking in the food and other activities, she said.

“We’re having fun, we’ve had a lot of people come out,” Schoenfish said. “We do a lot of fundraisers, and 100% of what we make goes to cancer patients in our community and around the community. We give them a little monetary support and a little emotional support.”

This is the second year the group has had tournaments at the festival, and people always seem to get into the spirit of fun, she said.

“We did it last year, too. People are fun, and they get more fun throughout the day,” Schoenfish said.

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Jay Mitchell, of Sioux Falls, competes in a bean bag tournament at the 2022 South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman Saturday, July 30.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Craig Brown, co-owner of Scratchpad Tees, of Sioux Falls, was stocking chislic-themed T-shirts at his booth in the vendor section. His shirts feature the word “chislic” superimposed on the former red-white-and-blue style of South Dakota license plate, which just happen to fit perfectly with the festival, though his shirts pre-dates the festival itself.

“We came out here with this shirt, and everyone said we were just cashing in on the Chislic Festival, and I said, 'Wait! We had this shirt years ago! They took our idea!' We’ve had a lot of fun with it,” Brown said.

The annual festival brought over 10,000 people to the city of Freeman, whose population is under 1,500.

The festival provides a great atmosphere for people of all ages, he said.

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“This is only our second year here, but we love this event,” Brown said. “This is one of the friendliest events we do. It really is amazing. And it’s really different because it’s really rural compared to the shows we do in Sioux Falls. We love it.”

The festival wouldn’t be possible without the strong support it has received from nearby communities, all of whom share a strong connection to the history of chislic. Baer also gave credit to the festival's numerous sponsors, including Merchants State Bank, CorTrust Bank, Hootz Bar and the South Dakota Retailers Association.

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Traditional mutton chislic as served at the 2022 South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman Saturday, July 30.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“It takes almost 300 volunteers to pull off the day of the Chislic Festival, so we really do count on the surrounding communities to come in and help as well,” Baer said. “It is in Freeman and of course we love having it here, but when we say the Chislic Circle, we want to include everyone in that Chislic Circle, because your family doesn’t just end at the edge of town.”

Live music has also become part of the experience. Five bands, all based out of or with ties to South Dakota, performed throughout the day, and the State VFW organization was on hand to help with opening ceremonies. Representatives, including title-holders, from the Miss South Dakota organization will help entertain younger visitors in the Kid Zone.

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Elliott Graber and the Family Vines cap their performance at the 2022 South Dakota Chislic Festival Saturday, July 30 in Freeman.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

There’s almost too much going on to cover it all, Baer said.

“If I tried to list all of the awesome people that want to come down and be a part of this I could probably sit here all night,” Baer said.

On Saturday, that chislic family, again numbering in the thousands, was present and accounted for in Freeman, and the results were another festive evening enjoying food, family and friends both old and new. It’s a new tradition that Baer said organizers are hoping to carry well into the future as they bring more and more people into the circle.

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Rep. Dusty Johnson talks with other contest judges at the 2022 South Dakota Chislic Festival in Freeman Saturday, July 20, 2022. Johnson was among a panel of judges that decided the best traditional and new age chislic at the festival.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

There’s always room for more, Baer said.

“(I love) the feeling that everyone is family when they’re here," Baer said. "And that is so attached to the history and the tradition of chislic. It’s that tradition that I love.”

Related Topics: FREEMANFOODEVENTS
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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