Much of the fun of travel is discovering new foods. I’ve explored much of the planet and sampled a wide range of specialties, but I have also discovered that one need not go far to find new things. And I’m not referring here to ethnic restaurants (though I love those) but rather to local specialties that are cherished in towns, states, or regions, and that are cornerstones of life, though often hardly found outside their home bases.
One such specialty is South Dakota’s chislic. Chislic is an iconic food, particularly in the southeast corner of the state, especially around Freeman, home of an annual chislic festival. In 2018, chislic was named the “official nosh” of South Dakota. The dish is attributed to German/Russian immigrants who arrived in SD in the 1870s.
The “nosh” designation is because chislic is not a main course. It is essentially bar food. Meat on a stick might sound like shish kabob, but in this case, the meat is in half-inch cubes. Of course, order enough, and it can be a full meal. But mostly, it’s a snack.
Knowing this meant I had to plan to not only try chislic, but try it multiple times—and most especially, in Freeman, at a place almost iconically associated with the dish—Meridian Corner. This popular and attractive restaurant sits alone amid sprawling fields at the corner of Hwy 18 and Hwy 81, They serve full dinners and are known for their steaks, but a lot of folks who stop there are searching for chislic—because here, it is completely traditional, with roots going back to the 1870s. Many places (even Meridian Corner) experiment with other ingredients, but traditional chislic is lamb or mutton, so that’s what I ordered. Small cubes of meat threaded on skewers, deep fried (though some places grill them) and served with soda crackers and garlic salt.
Not as iconic as chislic, but also offered at Meridian Corner, is Fleisch Kuchele, a meat-filled pastry that somewhat resembles a Cornish pasty. So I settled down with one order of mutton chislic, one of lamb chislic, and one of Fleisch Kuchele. Enjoyed it all.
This would not be my last chislic while in South Dakota. I was headed for Sioux Falls, for a couple of days of exploring, and I made a point of looking up a newer spot: Urban Chislic. In this trendy venue, in addition to multiple meat options (lamb, of course, but also beef, chicken, pork, fish, venison, and bison) there are other variations. The meat is still cut in small cubes, but here, it is fried un-skewered and served in a bowl, along with one’s choice of dipping sauce (Thai chili, kung pao, buffalo, ranch, and half a dozen hot, hotter and hottest options). That said, the menu does carry “The 1870,” which is on skewers with saltines and garlic salt. But I’d had that in Freeman, so here, I got lamb and opted for garlic parmesan dip. Very tasty.
So if you get to South Dakota, while there is the usual variety of local and ethnic options, do try to find chislic for at least one eating opportunity. There’s a reason it’s still around after 150 years.
Recently joined a few friends at the Des Plains (Illinois) History Center for a tour. Des Plaines is a town on the banks of the Des Plaines River, in suburban Chicagoland, that dates back to the 1830s. Like most older towns, it has changed dramatically over the years. The name Des Plaines, which is French for “of the plains,” like most French place names in the Midwest, actually predates the establishment of the town. But when a town was started here, it was named for Socrates Rand, who constructed one of the cornerstones of the early American Middle West—a grist mill. A grist mill was a necessity for the success of a town in an area that raised grain, and so the town was named Rand. The road that runs nearby is still called Rand, but the town was renamed Riverview and then, in 1925, the town was incorporated using the earlier French name for the area.
Lots of fascinating history here, including the fact that Des Plaines was once famed for its greenhouses and the plants and flowers the provided. (If you ever have a chance to hear the lecture they give on that bit of Des Plaines history, which I heard last year, it’s worth the investment of time.) But much of the history of the town reflects the familiar history of so many other towns—more people, more businesses, more growth, more change.
Among the businesses started at the end of the 1800s was a hardware store run by a man named Benjamin Kinder. Initially, Benjamin, his wife Elizabeth, and their three sons lived above the hardware store. But the classic tale of good, honest labor leading to success eventually resulted in the Kinders and being able to afford, a real home—and in 1907, they built a lovely Victorian house. It was by no means a mansion, but it boasted all the latest modern conveniences, such as a wood-burning stove, running water, radiators (vs. fireplaces), and light fixtures that offered both electric and gas lights, to utilize whichever was available at any given time. (Because the house still exists, one must assume that they did a good job of making sure that no electric sparks made contact with the gas jets.) One unexpected item was the vacuum system built into the walls—just hook the hose up to the socket on the wall, rather than dragging around a vacuum (double benefit in a home that didn’t have electrical outlets in every room).
Surprisingly, the house was not built where it currently sits: It had to be transferred via flatbed truck to its current position, next door to the offices of the Des Plaines History Center. It was in this smaller, more recent building that we began our tour. This center has lots of photos, tremendously knowledgeable docents, and some wonderful relics from an earlier time. I loved the antique, wooden pinball machine, which is in good enough condition to allow visitors to play with it. However, our guide, Emma, told us kids were also enraptured by the old Royal typewriter and love typing on it. (Does make one wonder where how they still manage to find typewriter ribbons.) And then we headed next door, to the Kinder house.
A broad porch welcomes visitors, as do rocking chairs (along with a sign saying to please enjoy sitting in them). Inside, no opportunity is missed to make the home comfortable and clearly Victorian. Glass panels in the door and in the windows of the entry and front room are etched or beveled, creating a wonderful play of light inside. All curtains are lace, and doorways are all outlined in wood. The rooms are not large, but they accommodate all the proprieties of the day. Off the entryway is the parlor, which is where one would entertain guests. Aside from handsome chairs, the room holds numerous objects to contribute to that entertaining: an upright piano, an early phonograph (the kind one sees in photos of Edison, with the wax cylinders, not records), a couple of stereoscopes (devices through which one viewed images designed to create a 3-D effect, kind of like a ViewMaster).
Next was the sitting room, where the family would gather. One chair was pointed out as it was custom-made for Elizabeth Kinder, who was clearly very petit. Solid oak pocket doors make it possible to separate the parlor from the sitting room.
The dining room was set for dinner, with Haviland china and crystal wine glasses. Our guide pointed out that patterns on the china and colors of other elements in the room (including the lamp over the table) reflect the popular color scheme of the day: pink and spring green.
The kitchen, modern for its time, had hot and cold running water, a substantial pantry with built-in cabinets, and a separate room for the all-important ice box. Our guide shared photos of the ice man arriving with the blocks of ice necessary to keep food cool.
One set of stairs ascended directly from the kitchen to the upper floor. We were told that there were five bedrooms, though we only saw two (the rest are for storage or are awaiting appropriate artifacts). The room at the head of the stairs was for the live-in maid/cook. Here, a low bed with a quilt, a lace-draped chest of drawers, and a large wooden trunk were the dominant furnishings, and an oil lamp was a reminder that neither gas not electricity could be relied on a hundred percent of the time.
The house’s sole bathroom was next to the maid’s room. White porcelain claw-footed bathtub, sink, and toilet gave the tiled room a surprisingly Architectural Digest look. Then we walked to the room at the front of the house, where a double bed and more furnishings made it clear this was the parents’ bedroom. Interestingly, because this part of the house has curved walls, the radiators had to curve, as well.
The final room we saw upstairs was the sewing room, which had a vintage treadle sewing machine, as well as an antique Martha Washington sewing table, which I recognized from my own mother’s pursuits in sewing.
Back downstairs at tour’s end, we spent a few minutes wandering around outside, among the tidy, narrow garden between buildings. Interestingly, there are several items memorialized amid the lush hostas that line the garden path, including a salvaged mill stone from the old Rand grist mill.
For those who may not have heard me when I was interviewed on this Illinois NPR show, they have kindly posted the presentation. Always fun for me to be able to share about the book and the places I hope it will take you.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection