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The Chislic Circle

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2005 issue of  South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.

"A lot of people don't even ask what the specials are; they just want chislic," said Melissa Svartoein. Svartoein worked at Papa's Restaurant in Freeman when she was a student at the University of South Dakota.


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. 

If you live there –– maybe in Marion or Menno, Parker or Parkston –– you probably are acquainted with chislic, a simple dish of bite-sized chunks of sheep meat on wooden skewers, deep-fat fried or grilled. Other parts of the world may have their kebabs of mutton and other meats, but chislic seems distinctive to southeastern South Dakota.

For decades a mainstay at cafes, bars, fairs and celebrations, it historically has been enhanced only by salt or garlic salt and served with saltines and, if you are so inclined, washed down with a cold beer. Recent years have seen the introduction of chislic in various marinades and with various sauces.

However it’s prepared, chislic sells. Papa’s Restaurant in Freeman serves up to 3,000 chislic sticks a week. Rachel Svartoein, whose grandfather sold chislic at a corner store south of Freeman for many years, provided 1,200 sticks for her high school graduation reception. At Marion’s 125th anniversary, the Jaycees sold 4,000 sticks on the first night. The chislic stand at the Turner County Fair in Parker sold 40,000 in 2004.

Chislic is simply an unquestioned thread in certain community fabrics; yet it remains a mystery meal, its origins unsure. Even theories and myths are difficult to find. “I know there are sheep in other places, so why chislic is popular here and not there, I don’t know,” said Papa’s co-owner Susan Letcher.

Even some sheep producers outside the area know little about chislic. “Ask people in Aberdeen, they’ve never heard of it,” said Bill Aeschlimann, a Hurley farmer who is active in national and regional sheep associations. “Ask people in Rapid City, they don’t have a clue.” Attempts to sell chislic have flopped at the Sturgis bike rally because nobody knew what it was.

Scant historical accounts suggest that chislic was introduced in Freeman at least 100 years ago by Russian immigrant businessman John Hoellwarth. But that’s about all anyone knows. “All I can tell you is my dad tells the story how his father, on a day for celebration would buy a couple of young lambs for 50 cents a piece and make chislic,” said grandson Robert Hoellwarth, a retired physician in Vallejo, Calif. 

The Hoellwarths arrived in Hutchinson County in the 1870s from the Crimea of southern Russia, a region where “shashlyk,” cubes of skewered beef, lamb or pork, were grilled over an open fire. Chislic probably evolved from shashlyk, according to Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and food editor of Russian Life magazine. But she and other food experts are not familiar with the South Dakota version.

Whatever its origin, chislic is a distinguishing feature of southeastern South Dakota. Aeschlimann, who has sold it at the Turner County Fair for 20 years, had his first chislic stand at Hurley’s centennial in 1983. “We knew there would be lots of people coming back,” he said. “And what would they think of from their childhood? Chislic.”

Jake Huber ran a chislic stand in Freeman on summer Saturday nights during the 1930s and ’40s, days when farm families came to town for shopping and socializing. “There was such a tremendous amount of people in town on Saturday nights, it didn’t take long to sell out,” said his daughter Nita Engbrecht of Marion. 

The whole family prepared the chislic and cleaned up late Saturday night. Engbrecht’s job, which the health department might frown upon today, was collecting the used skewers, which her father fashioned from bamboo. “Those sticks had to be boiled, dried out and used again and again,” she said.

Among Huber’s patrons was Bill Gering, then a teenaged farm boy. But chislic was not new to him. Several farmers owned a threshing machine together, and when harvest was done, everybody gathered to celebrate. “The men figured out who owed who,” Gering said. Then everybody ate chislic and homemade ice cream.

In Freeman, residents bring out-of-town guests to Papa’s to introduce them to chislic. “Most people like it,” Letcher said. “If they’re here a second night, they come back and have it again.” Papa’s serves five varieties: original, barbecue, lemon pepper, garlic and even one marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and soy sauce. But the original recipe remains most popular, Letcher said. But regardless of how it’s cooked, mutton on a stick remains popular in the Chislic Circle.


08:24 pm - Mon, March 26 2012
Stella Shaffer said:
It sure was popular at Corn Palace Days. Local kids who weren't spending their allowances on rides and cheap trinkets were loading up on sticks of chislic.
08:17 am - Tue, March 27 2012
John Prien said:
Many of my childhood memories of family reunions in and around Parkston involve chislic. Thanks for a good article that stirred some good memories. Long live chislic!
09:27 am - Fri, June 15 2012
Bruce Tucker said:
I grew up in Huron, in the '60's. The Frosty Creme, by the Plains, Ravine Lake, and Memorial Ball Park, sold baskets of chislic. 3 sticks, for 25 cents - it was great! I wondered why no other place sold it. They do not offer, here, in Wisconsin.
10:01 am - Tue, July 17 2012
Sheila said:
Kaylor Locker processes and sticks the chislic for the businesses mentioned in this article as well as for the Turner County Fair. They also sell chislic at the Locker for those who want to take it home and make it.
05:24 am - Wed, September 19 2012
Lee said:
Keps chislic iss available in grocery stores in SE SD and also available at Pietz's Kuchen Kitchen and South Dakota Product Store right across from the high school on highway 25 in Scotland
06:38 pm - Tue, September 10 2013
Jonell White said:
My earliest memory of chislic goes back to the Turner County fair in Parker, SD. It would have been in the 60's while my grandfather Herman J Weeldreyer was in charge of the horticulture building during the length of the fair. I don't recall how many years he held that position but every year I would go to the fair with 'Opa' and I would eat chislic. The last time I went to the fair was in 2011. The first thing I looked for was the chislic stand and I was not disappointed.
04:03 pm - Sun, December 22 2013
Stephen said:
I lived in Rapid City for my last two years of high school, and my father ran a major convention there, so we spent a lot of time getting to know the local hotel and restaurant proprietors.

I was introduced to Chislic because it was served in the restaurant at the Hilton in downtown Rapid City during the late 80s and early 90s, and for room service at the same hotel. Their version featured Sirloin cubes inside an edible tortilla bowl, with sticks to dip into a variety of sauces. I am now trying to replicate the recipe at home (in Florida). It's a western version of Ethiopian Gored Gored, and I'm currently out of Injera bread.
01:19 am - Fri, January 31 2014
James said:
Being from SD and being ready to prepare some more sheep chislic this story is great. Most don't realize how great chislic is especially the varying meats you can use.
07:50 am - Sat, April 12 2014
Steve Behrens said:
Bert's drive inn on 12th Kiwanis sold Chislic, and had a stand at the Sioux empire fair throughout the 60's and 70's. I got the fun of running it with my sisters and basically missing the fair. Mixed blessing.
08:29 pm - Thu, April 17 2014
frank hecker said:
Chislic, ah yes. I grew up in Sioux Falls and in college we worked in the meat packing plants (Morells and Greenly's) and since we had a little money from the plants frequented the bars. I remember there were a couple of places that served Chislic along with "Red beer" remember that? Anyway tonight I am 66 and living in Az One of my current hobbies is cooking as I am alone and tonight I stirred up a batch of lamb chislic and sirloin chislic. I am eating them as I write this. I got the receipt off the web and I recommend that you lose or use very little "Soy sause" still tastes good but not like when I was there in the 60's. So the sirloin was tougher and less flavorable (I love lamb) and so I prefer the lamb.
Going to S Dak for reunion this summer plan on visiting many chislic places in hopes of opening a sports bar with Chislic and wings in Tucson Az Want to invest? LOL Come join me in the winter time and feel at home. See ya.
Frank (Dad owned Suburban Lanes, Grand dad Weatherwax's men store, that goes a long way back huh?) email me.. frank
09:33 pm - Sat, July 12 2014
Jim Meyer said:
I was born near Aberdeen, SD but grew up in Colorado. When I was 13, I hitched a ride with a cousin and visited relatives in SD. Along the way, they stopped in a little dance hall in southeastern SD and I was treated to my first (and last) skewer of chislic. It remains one of those cherished memories of childhood. I am now 63, living in Tucson, and fancy myself a pretty good amateur chef, but I have never attempted chislic - - probably because I don't want to tarnish the wonderful memory. I just don't want to be disappointed when it doesn't measure up!
10:32 am - Tue, October 7 2014
Linda Lou said:
I lived in Irene, SD back in the early 80's, and learned about chislic. We used deer venison-deep fried cubes and used Johnny's spice on them while they were still hot. Saltines and beer went right along with the delicious chunks of melt in your mouth meat...YUMMY!
06:33 am - Thu, October 9 2014
Mary said:
The Depot Club in Aberdeen - great chislic!
Live music, dancing, brewskies. Fun times. :D
06:07 pm - Sat, November 22 2014
Connie said:
Great article. I attended college (late 1960's) in Sioux Falls and a few of us would feast on chislic at a hole in the wall bar on weekends. The walls were thin and we always joked about the cardboard walls but they were plywood. This place served the best chislic. Recently I chanced upon a local bar in Chandler, Arizona serving chislic. The owner asked me about the food because he did not know how to make chislic and it was horrible. Now I make my own lamb chislic. It is great with a cold beer on these cool Arizona evenings. Good eating to all.
02:47 pm - Sun, November 23 2014
Kathy said:
Just cookin' up my batch of chislic for the week. Funny - when I got lambs processed in Iowa (Orange City), chislic wasn't given as an option. 2 lambs processed at Renner corner and they automatically assumed I wanted chislic!!!
05:29 pm - Sat, November 29 2014
Charlie said:
We used to eat chislic in Sioux Falls back in the late 60s at a
place called Burts it was a real hole in the wall but it had the best chislic crackers , beer and an occasional mouse would run across the table.
01:48 pm - Wed, January 7 2015
Todd Juhnke said:
I had a few at Island Park, Miltown,SD
12:32 pm - Sun, February 1 2015
Jenny Oakland said:
You can get great chislic at 212° in Brandon, SD. Hungry now.
11:50 am - Sun, April 19 2015
Cathy B. said:
I went to high school in Yankton, SD and our Saturday nights were at the dances in Tyndall.... my first introduction to chislic, 3 sticks for $0. 25 !!! Good stuff.
07:47 am - Mon, May 11 2015
William G. Dewald said:
My parents, who were born in the 1890s in Freeman, SD, introduced me to chislic in the 1930s. Always a treat, especially for special occasions such as birthdays. I was told that the dish was picked up by Germans who settled in Russia while there whose decendents in turn migrated to South Dakota during the 1870s. The meat was always lamb fried in deep fat, generally lard. Spiced with only salt and pepper and ALWAYS served with beer, even for kids. The story was that kids would be sent to the main street bar to get a bucket of beer for the family when chislic was served. I've introduced the dish to my grandchildren, but without the beer.
12:49 pm - Sun, August 2 2015
Dan Mueller said:
I had no idea that chislic was such a regional food. I thought everyone in the United States knew what this was. I grew up in Tyndall, South Dakota, about 40 miles from the Menno Freeman area. My ancestors are all Germans from Russia. I am constantly amazed at what these people came up with. Not only are they responsible for Kuchen, South Dakota's state dessert, but also for chislic. My first experience with chislic was probably in a local bar or a county fair when I was a child in the 50's. I was looking for a recipe this afternoon and came across this article. I plan on making my first chislic on sticks today.
06:02 pm - Tue, August 18 2015
K. Sanborn said:
Swan Lake checking in. Had a lot of it at the Pavilion there. Dad was a farmer and when he butchered a lamb he's get a lot of it made into chislic. I also didn't know until much later that most of the US was living in a deprived state of affairs.
04:30 pm - Tue, October 27 2015
Mary B said:
What is the original recipe? I would love to make it!
01:37 pm - Wed, January 13 2016
My gramma Emma Haar and grampa Ted lived in Freeman. Grampa owned the john deere dealership there. They would take us out for delicious chislic and it sounds like the place is still there...we were from the eastcoast but I stii remember the fun we had in Freeman. I am now 72 so it was quite sometime ago.
07:58 pm - Sun, February 14 2016
mark said:
Fred and Lizzie Haar at Freds Pool Hall in Bridgewater fed me chislic beer in the 60's.
03:34 pm - Mon, February 15 2016
James Jackson said:
Well in Texas nobody has ever heard of it but I can say I have had it in Freeman and in Bridgewater at the same bar and it is very good an aunt of mine in Bridgewater could make it an I would guarantee you would go back for more
11:25 am - Fri, April 22 2016
Stephen said:
I'm a direct descendent of Johann Hoellworth, on my fathers mothers side.
Apparently the liking for Chislicks doesn't fall far from the stick. My father and I prepared Chislicks in Phillip when I was 10 yrs old for a rodeo. Neither of us knew the linkage at the time. Thanks
05:41 pm - Fri, July 22 2016
Tom said:
A visit to a Hutterian Bruderhauf or an aged Mennonite would shed light on this subject.
05:33 am - Mon, July 25 2016
Steph Albrecht said:
My parents are from Tripp and Armour, SD. I now live in Oregon, and when I ask the older local folks with German ancestry if they have had or remember CHISLIC, no one knows what I am talking about. Dads, Dad was a German Russian, we grew up eating CHISLIC. Love this article and will be sharing it with friends. Thanks
05:33 am - Mon, July 25 2016
Steph Albrecht said:
My parents are from Tripp and Armour, SD. I now live in Oregon, and when I ask the older local folks with German ancestry if they have had or remember CHISLIC, no one knows what I am talking about. Dads, Dad was a German Russian, we grew up eating CHISLIC. Love this article and will be sharing it with friends. Thanks
09:00 am - Fri, August 12 2016
Growing up in Sioux Falls during the 50s through the 70s we had several places to go for chislic, or we made our own. Love it!
06:50 pm - Fri, August 12 2016
Lyle Harden said:
I have not been able to find this anywhere I have been since I LEFT s> d>
03:24 am - Sun, August 14 2016
Holly Butlet said:
My brother David (Mike) Butler owner Renner Bar in Rennet, SD in the early 60s as a child I help family cut up lamb for Chillicothe. Then he owned Chicos Chislic. this business put chislic in bars all over Sioux Falls, SD for many yrs. He has passed now but a great memory of his contribution to Sd.
12:09 pm - Sun, November 20 2016
AJD said:
gotta try that !
06:06 pm - Fri, February 10 2017
B Krehbieo said:
My best memories are of eating chislic with my cousin Kraig in Freeman SD in the late 60's early 70's. My aunt and uncle would deep fry it beside the picnic table and our families would enjoy it. Cousin Kraig and I would count and compare how many sticks we had eaten. We only ate it with salt, pepper and saltines. I still make it and enjoy it here in SE Mn even though no one has ever heard of it!
09:52 pm - Sun, August 13 2017
Jill Jaeger said:
Am reading "Through Siberia by Accident" by Dervla Murphy. On page 97, talking about going to a small restaurant near Lake Baikal, " Here customers has no choice: pork shashlik (kebab) was served with rings of raw onion....This meat was exceptionally flavorful...". With family in SE South Dakota, and having eaten chislic, I thought the counsidence to be to strong. Looked up on Wikipedia and here, and thought, what a small world we live in.
08:10 pm - Thu, March 1 2018
Nancy Jo (Walters) Nord said:
If we didn't have so much snow here in SE Minnesota, I'd go right out and find some mutton and make some chislic. Grew up with it and I love it. Wonder if one could serve it at one's funeral!! I'll be 80 next year.
08:21 am - Wed, February 27 2019
N. Clark said:
My mother grew up in Bridgewater and I am a relative to the Tschetters, Hofers, and Engbrechts. I remember visiting Bridgewater as a child and eating Chislic at the Wildcat Cafe. It was served in a paper lined basket with packaged saltine crackers and a garlic salt shaker. It was so good. I didn't know at the time how isolated the particular food was. The food which immigrated to that region was such a huge part of my upbringing and love for cooking! Family gatherings were huge and there was always so much good food. My grandma Vi's homeade pickles, pheasant burgers, potato dumplings, and gastchel (sp?)(dumpling soup) soup remain my favorites. Can't wait for next summers Chislic Fest and this springs Schmeckfest to celebrate food and culture from SE SD.
12:21 pm - Tue, March 19 2019
Rick Buck said:
Went to Augustana in Sioux Falls in the late ‘60s early ‘70s and would frequent a dive on Minnesota Avenue called Charlie’s that had the best Chislic I ever tasted. Of course, it might have had something to do with the cold beer too. Need to get back to South Dakota. Making my mouth water.
05:17 pm - Sun, August 8 2021
John DeNoma said:
Parkston, SD, My Uncle Tony, "Tony`s Bar" early 1960's across from the Movie Theater (Avalon?) On Main Street at RR Tracks. Served Lamb cube Chislic on wax paper and rectangular paper Plate. Anthony Oberembt and wife Marie Nee Prien Oberembt. Deep fat broiler, on wood skewers. "Simply Delicious!" Family friend: "Laber," opened the bowling alley on Highway 37, small town manners, a friend, he asked Tony if it was okay for him to serve Chislic...... Absolutely! After a "Berend-Oberembt family reunion," in 90's, my nephew and I went to the Kaylor SD Meat Locker (Chislic Central) and purchased smallest amount a frozen square of Chislic already on sticks. Tom Pettygrove barbecued at family gatering at home in Twin Cities MN. Brand new gas grill, grease fron feast changed the paint from black to grey. A one foot square is a lot of Chislic, Remembered and tasted finer at "Tony's Bar! Parkston SD.

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