FREEMAN — When it comes to their first chislic festival, organizers aren’t sheepish about promoting the lamb on a stick.
The South Dakota Chislic Festival debuts Saturday at the Freeman softball field/city park. The event, which runs from 4-10 p.m., celebrates the local food favorite which the 2018 Legislature designated as the official state "nosh" or snack.
Word of the event has spread like wildfire, according to festival co-founder Josh Hofer. He also serves as community development and marketing coordinator for Freeman.
"I had pegged this as something that would draw 500 people on Main Street," he said. "But when we launched our first press release, we received 6,000 ‘shares’ online during the first week. That’s just mind-boggling to me and totally amazing. But it shows the pull of social media."
Because of the widespread interest, the festival has been moved to the softball field/city park, Hofer said. The new venue provides more room and also allows a separation between family-friendly activities and the festival area serving alcohol.
The festival will revolve around a judged chislic competition, with top-ranked recipes receiving cash prizes and trophies. In addition, the event will feature craft beers from across the state, wine tasting and the Annabelle Band from Sioux Falls for entertainment.
The event is a partnership between the Freeman Community Development Corporation and the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, with the support of the City of Freeman.
The organizers recommend that visitors bring their own chairs because of the limited seating.
The chislic festival arose out of an ongoing discussion about starting another festival in Freeman, Hofer said.
"We have Schmeckfest in the spring, but Freeman doesn’t have another big festival during the year, especially in the summer," he said. "We wanted to create an event that the community could get behind."
Then the 2018 South Dakota Legislature introduced a bill designating chislic as the state "nosh." The meat — usually lamb or mutton — is cut into bite-sized cubes, grilled and served on small skewers. Its fans often season it with garlic salt, add crackers on the side and wash it down with a cold beer.
Hofer knew a marketing opportunity when he saw one.
"I sent a letter to the legislative committees," Hofer said. "I told them this could really have an impact for community branding and economic development. It’s important stuff for rural communities. It’s a pathway to helping agricultural development and tourism."
The Legislature approved the designation, and Hofer saw an opportunity to market the food’s ties to Freeman’s German-Russian heritage.
"Freeman isn’t claiming that chislic started with us. But we’re celebrating a food and a culture, and Freeman is one of those towns," he said. "I think it’s an exciting future as far as a festival with a regional connection. Where Freeman is positioned, we’re in the middle of it all."
The local organizers faced a decision on when to hold the inaugural festival. They opted for striking while the iron was hot.
"We decided to do this in late May, which meant we had 45 to 60 days to organize it and pull it off," Hofer said. "There was some talk about whether we should wait until 2019, but we needed to put our flag in the ground this year."
The Freeman festival isn’t the only chislic promotion for the region. The Meridian Corner restaurant, located south of Freeman, will showcase its chislic during next month’s "Flavored Nation" food festival in Columbus, Ohio. The invitation-only event features a regional food from each state.
As for this Saturday, Hofer suggested that chislic festival visitors make a full day of it by attending the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Relief Sale at Freeman Academy, which runs until 3 p.m.
At the chislic festival, vendors will sell samples to visitors, Hofer said.
"Basically, people can buy a ticket and try one sample of chislic," he said. "They pay $1 for each ticket and can go from booth to booth."
As of Tuesday, the Freeman festival had attracted 10 competitors from across eastern South Dakota, Hofer said. The contestants range from Sioux Falls chefs to local residents with their own recipes.
The contest features three categories. Classic Chislic entries are limited to sheep, while New Age Nosh features other meat such as deer, beef, goat and bison. The People’s Choice Award goes to the overall popular winner.
The winners of each category receive $250 and a custom-designed trophy from 81 Metal Art.
Festival organizers expanded the offerings to include South Dakota craft beers and wines, Hofer said.
"Craft beers have become pretty popular, and we decided to celebrate that trend with six craft beers," he said. "We have the South Dakota craft beers on tap until 9 p.m., and we also have domestic beers that are available."
In addition, the Vintage Vault of Freeman will offer a wine-tasting area.
The South Dakota Chislic Festival offers more than good food, Hofer said.
"What’s really neat is that we’re having this discussion around the state about agri-tourism," he said. "We have an amazing quality of life in South Dakota. This festival shows our heritage and foods, and how they can provide an essential piece of community branding for our small towns. It really opens up the narrative."
The chislic festival and its lore tie in well with Freeman’s heritage and South Dakota in general, Hofer said.
"I think chislic is a rural food that is almost mysterious. It came over with the Germans from Russia. People loved it, but no one seems to know specifically how it all started," he said.
"For me, it goes back to the idea that chislic is ‘ours.’ It’s something pretty unique to South Dakota. And with events like this festival, we’re able to show that good chislic can be made here."
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.