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Tiger meat, chislic: Strange vittles from South Dakota
Having a Latina for a mother and a cowboy for a father, I grew up in the Southwest eating foods like tripas de leche (beef intestines) and mountain oysters (deep-fried calf testicles) that might seem strange to some folks but were common in my circles.
Yet I winced when Yuma Sun features editor Darin Fenger asked me to write about South Dakota bar foods, because one of those foods — called tiger meat — consists of raw beef, vegetables and spices.
I agreed to make it and write about it, but not to sample it, because of the risk of contracting serious or even fatal illness from pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. Cooking meats thoroughly reduces those types of risks, according to the FDA.
Food-borne illnesses aside, the idea of eating raw beef rates high on my yuck meter.
However, my sources in Gettysburg, S.D., where Darin is from, say tiger meat is a delicious treat. It's popular not only with locals but also with tourists, hunters and fishermen who flock to the small farming community just east of the Missouri River and try it with cheese and crackers — and a cold beer.
“It's hot and salty and has a lot of flavor to it because of the onions and spices,“ says John Langer, owner of Langer's Family Foods, who prepares and packages tiger meat for sale in his grocery store every Saturday.
His recipe calls for ground boneless round roast, white onions, celery, green bell pepper, cayenne pepper, black pepper and salt.
He follows a stringent process to reduce the risk of contamination during preparation. First, he sanitizes the meat grinder and mixing tubs as well as surrounding environment in the cold butcher room. Then he grinds the roasts, which he orders with all the fat trimmed off, because E. coli is typically located in fat rather than the meat itself, he says.
To further avoid contamination, the roasts are the first meats processed in the sanitized grinder on Saturday mornings. Then he and his staff use long plastic gloves to hand-mix the ground roast with the vegetables and spices and package it with labels instructing consumers to “cook thoroughly” to avoid food-borne illnesses.
Some people do cook tiger meat in stews and chilies and other types of recipes, “but most people around here are going to take it and put it on crackers and eat it raw,” he says.
The majority of people eat raw tiger meat with saltine crackers, Colby-Jack cheese and a cold beer, he adds.
“I sell between 70 and 90 pounds every Saturday. It's a big process; it takes about three hours to make a batch.”
He says he's been eating and making tiger meat since 1979 and has never gotten sick, nor known of anyone who has. However, he does caution people not to try to make it themselves and to only buy it from a reputable source who they know prepares it under strict, sanitary conditions using the proper meat and not hamburger.
Toward that end, he does not provide recipes for tiger meat.
Rich Johnston, owner of Lucy's Bar and Grill in Gettysburg, buys tiger meat from Langer's and serves it at his establishment every Saturday. His customers eat it raw with crackers and American, colby-jack or hot cheese, he said. Like Langer, Johnston says “it's good with beer.”
They both say tourists from across the U.S. try tiger meat while in town, and about 60 to 70 percent like it, Johnston adds.
If Johnston's name sounds familiar, it's because he lived in Yuma for 30 years, the last 15 of which he spent managing the bar at the American Legion Post 19 on Virginia Drive. But he never served tiger meat there.
In fact, he had never heard of tiger meat until he and his wife, Marsha, moved to Gettysburg about six years ago. Although he was born and raised in Howard, S.D., about 200 miles from their current location, tiger meat was not one of his childhood foods.
Chislic was, however, and it's also a popular South Dakota bar food. Chislic (pronounced chiz-lick) is chunks of bite-sized meat cooked quickly in a deep-fat fryer, seasoned with a pinch of garlic salt and served on toothpicks or skewers.
“Original chislic was made of mutton,” Johnston says. As a child growing up on a farm, he ate both mutton chislic and venison chislic for a snack or quick lunch.
In the past, people mostly made it at home, whereas now it's mostly made in bars and restaurants, he says.
In Gettysburg, beef chislic is the most common type, probably because more cattle are raised in the area, compared with the past, when sheep were more plentiful, Johnston says.
Beef chislic is typically made with beef sirloin tips and is called sirloin tips instead of chislic in some bars/restaurants, he says.
Beef chislic is “by far” his favorite. “It's very tender and juicy if you cook it right.” Like other locals, he likes to dip it in Heinz 57 or barbecue sauce.
Brandi Valentz, cook at Lucy's Bar and Grill, says for medium-rare chislic, the beef should be dipped into the deep-fat fryer for only about 10 seconds. I tried that, and it was a bit too rare for my taste, so I dipped it for an additional 20 seconds.
I also cooked another batch for a total of 60 seconds, to make it crispy. I thought the latter would taste better, but it was dry and the flavor was inferior to the medium-rare batch, which was indeed tender and juicy and full of flavor.
I called an old friend, Steve Martinez, with whom I attended Gila Bend High School but who now lives in Philip, S.D. Although he had never heard of tiger meat, he had heard of pork chislic but had never eaten it.
He says, however, that in his area of South Dakota, which is west of the Missouri River, bar foods include buffalo hot dogs and burgers, pheasant, venison and Rocky Mountain oysters.
He describes having worked as a wrestler on cattle ranches during brandings, where calves were either roped and tied or wrested to the ground, branded, ear marked, vaccinated and castrated.
The “oysters” were sometimes collected in a bucket to be cleaned, sliced, breaded and cooked later. Other times the “oysters' were separated from the membrane, tossed into a vat of hot grease cooking over the branding fire and eaten on the spot.
“South Dakota is not for the faint of heart,” he says, matter of factly. “It's for tough guys like your dad (was) — and tough women.”
Like Steve, I've partaken of mountain oysters during brandings, which now that I reflect on it, seems a bit barbaric and primitive. But no way am I going to eat raw beef. No way.