A Chislic Staycation
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A Chislic Staycation

Jun 21, 2023

Columnist Jerry Nelson recounts his "staycation" experience at the South Dakota Chislic Festival. It was a day filled with delicious food, sights, and sounds.

Jerry Nelson

When I was a kid and first heard the word “chislic,” I thought that it had something to do with using your tongue to clean the grunge off a wedge-like cutting tool. It sounded disgusting.

I would soon learn the truth: chislic is a regional treat that traditionally consists of small, tender chunks of meat — traditionally mutton — that has been placed on a skewer, deep fried, and generously sprinkled with garlic salt.

You had me at meat.

Recently, my wife and I, along with a couple of friends, journeyed to the annual South Dakota Chislic Festival, held at a park in Freeman. It was a day trip for the four of us, a staycation, if you will. A staycation that involved large amounts of deliciousness.

It was an outstandingly pleasant summer day, and the park was thronged with people who, like me, enjoy fried food on a stick. My wife and her friend claimed a choice spot beneath a picnic shelter while we, the husbands, set off into the wilds of the festival in search of more meaty deliciousness. It was like one of those hunter-gatherer moments from back in the days of yore, except that the most challenging part involved waiting in line to place our food and refreshment orders.

Our mission was an unalloyed success and we returned victoriously to the spot where our wives were seated. Everything was declared to be delicious even though the other couple had never tried mutton before. We were happy that we were able to give them a proper introduction to this delectable delicacy.

My wife struck up a conversation with a young man who was seated across the table from us. His name was Brian Rybinski and we soon figured out that I’m acquainted with his uncle Kevin who dairy farms at Hendricks, Minnesota.

Rybinski, who is getting married in September, works for his uncle on a full-time basis. He explained that his fiancée was at a baby shower that afternoon and that he was given the choice of either attending the shower or going to the Chislic Festival.

“I said, ‘A chance to eat meat and drink beer all afternoon? Heck yeah!’” Rybinski told us, grinning.

On that particular Saturday, it would be Rybinski’s only day off from work for the next several weeks. It was gratifying to know that this young man’s idea of a staycation was very similar to ours.

As our bellies were filled to the brim, our little group decided to walk off some of the calories by taking a stroll around the park. The womenfolk were drawn like moths to a flame to the area where a variety of merchandise was being sold. Shopping is a mildly annoying chore for many guys; for many ladies it’s an essential activity, similar to breathing.

The other guy of the couple and I swiftly became bored with the mercantile. We were drawn like moths to a flame to an area where we had espied some old machinery.

There were several really odd mechanisms on display, cast iron conglomerations of pulleys and gears and rollers that looked as though they had been designed by Rube Goldberg. A confusing array of spools filled with brightly colored thread danced about in a hypnotic manner, weaving a dozen strings into a multihued braid.

It was a steampunk daydream come true.

I chatted with Myron Garrels, the owner of the machines. I asked Garrels how old these contraptions were, mentally guesstimating that they had been manufactured sometime during the 1950s.

“Some of these braiding machines date back to the 1840s,” he replied.

I found this astounding and remarked that people must have been incredibly inventive back in the day.

“I have investigated the origins of braiding machines,” Garrels said. “They first appeared in Germany in the 1600s. The English stole the designs from the Germans, and we, Americans, got them from the English.”

One of the machines wasn’t satisfied with simply weaving a braid that looked like a shoelace. It was spitting out a red, white, and blue braid that had been formed into an elegant zigzag shape. How it managed to do this using only gears and pulleys was beyond my comprehension.

“That’s the kind of braid that would have been sewn onto the border of your mom’s apron,” Garrels said.

I instantly recognized the truth of this statement, which also said something about his age and mine.

Once our fascination with the braiding machines had been satiated, my wife and I, and the other couple, decided that it was time to head home. We were full of good food and had had a good time visiting with folks.

However, never once during the entire day did I think about licking a chisel.