As you wound your way through the Kansas State Fair this year, perhaps you stumbled upon this surreal scene: standing in front of a refrigerated case, a group of wide-eyed Mennonite girls stare at 700 pounds of salted butter that has been reformed into a wild scene of two monkeys riding the backs of bucking sheep. Butter sculptures like this one, best known their pastoral or quirky representations, have surprisingly privileged origins.
References to butter sculpting date back to 1536, when the chef to Pope Pius V hosted a feast in which nine elaborate centerpieces of carved food were circulated. Early butter ornamentation in Europe was a high-class affair that eventually spread to the middle class.
In America, the early 1900s found the dairy industry in a heated fight with oleomargarine, which the diary industry worked hard to brand as laboratory paste. Butter sculptures, then, became a great marketing tactic, showcasing nostalgic, wholesome, and plentiful dioramas made from natural butter.
Though WWII’s shortages brought pause to the practice of bringing butter to shape, it was quickly revived. By 1954, Minnesota had instituted the annual “Princess Kay of the Milk Way” contest, in which a teenage girl is chosen to act as a good-will ambassador for the dairy industry. To this day, as a tribute to her service, a bust is chiseled in her image from a 90lb block of butter.
The butter sculpture has become a national icon, trickling down through the classes, from banquet beginnings to popular displays that continue today.
Music: “I Melt with You” from After the Snow by Modern English