Checking in with the butter princesses of the Minnesota State Fair
My brain is melting like a portrait carved in butter, so please indulge some nonsense!
This is not remotely topical or important or relevant. Let’s just get that out there.
But August was a stressful month for me, and my psyche has disintegrated, and then I found the most absurd thing to get fascinated by, so I did. I got fascinated by it and now you all have to hear about it. No! You get to hear about it!
The journey began with me seeing this tweet:
I don’t need to tell you that there is simply so much here.
“There’s no traditional State Fair this year.” That makes sense. But the smiling lady pictured, Donna Moenning, is able to remember the State Fair — an otherwise foggy recollection that can never quite come into focus, presumably — by looking into her freezer. Because for FOUR DECADES, “the former Princess Kay finalist” has kept her butter sculpture there. In what seems like a parody of local news but which is in fact real, this tweet concludes with the teaser “The message she’s spreading, at 10:00.” The owner of a forty-year-old cryogenically preserved butter head has an announcement for us peasants who have never reigned over a dairy kingdom! I’m listening, Your Highness!
This tweet does not have much engagement, though one Twitter user who seems to know Donna well enough to attest to her character contributed this endearing feedback:
Well, if that doesn’t just melt your heart, like Donna’s butter head if it weren’t so carefully maintained.
Obviously, I’m interested in this story immediately. I suppose that Donna was crowned Princess Kay for crafting the best butter sculpture in a butter-carving competition, and I love that for her. I must look into the matter further, so I do. WCCO - CBS Minnesota has the news I can use.
After pausing to admire the gleaming sweat on the antique dairy visage, I click through to the article. Therein, I learn that I had it all wrong. Donna did not compete for the title of Princess Kay of the Milky Way by sculpting a top-notch butter head. She was a finalist in the running for Princess Kay for other reasons, and she got her own head carved as a butter sculpture as her prize. Apparently, each one of the 12 finalists vying to be crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the Minnesota State Fair takes home a sculpture of their own head made out of butter.
(Further Googling revealed that the winning Princess Kay of the Milky Way is the candidate who best displays “communication skills, personality, general knowledge of the dairy industry and its products, and their commitment to dairy promotion.” If you’re wondering where the title “Princess Kay of the Milky Way” came from, the answer is that it beat out 10,000 other entries in a contest in 1954, so that should answer all your questions and not raise any new ones. Also, it takes 6-8 hours to carve each butter head out of a 90-lb block of butter, and Wikipedia says that “the butter carving booth is one of the most popular exhibits at the Fair.”)
So anyway, Donna has kept her butter head for 40 years, ever since she took it home in 1980. I’m sure you’re wondering about “the message she’s spreading.” I present to you her quote, in its entirety:
“Truly it is about the people you meet, and the lessons you learn. You take those with you. It’s just good … It’s good like butter.”
If you’re wondering whether COVID-19 has stopped this tradition, the answer is absolutely not. I know this because I watched a video about it from the same news station. It features footage from a previous year’s fair, in which one onlooker gazes upon the carved slabs of butter and says with admiration, “Beautiful, beautiful extra-salted.”
I learned that Linda Christensen has been the official butter sculptor for almost fifty years, but this year she cannot travel from California to Minnesota for the event. (I thought it was strange that the Fair doesn’t use a local artist, but a visit to Christensen’s extremely detailed Wikipedia page informed me that “Linda Christensen is believed to be the only butter carver in the United States who works with live models.” Here I thought that any old sculptor could carve a likeness in butter! Even virtually, this tradition is all about the people you meet, and the lessons you learn.)
Anyway, the great news is that there’s an apprentice carver named Gerry Kulzer taking over for Linda this year. She provided advice over Zoom while Gerry carved the sculptures based off pictures of the finalists, and his carving process has been live-streamed for the butter-starved Minnesotans missing their annual butter spectacle. I love Gerry, for the record. He seems to have a great sense of humor about the whole thing.
“What could be better than to be known for butter sculpting?” he asks. “It’s close to my heart, and it’s probably not good for my heart, but it’s close to my heart.”
I Googled Gerry and learned that he has been apprenticing under Linda in the butter-carving game for a few years. He is actually a Minnesota artist, and he makes busts out of clay and bronze in the off-season, which was more in line with what I’d pictured before I realized that the Fair flew in a renowned butter artisan every year. In a separate interview with Gerry, he revealed that another former Princess Kay of the Milky Way also kept her butter head in the freezer, and she later contacted him when she got engaged to request that he sculpt a butter head for her groom to display alongside hers at their wedding reception. Gerry obliged, but he was not pleased with his work. Because her husband’s short hair meant less butter to carve away to make room for the face, the proportions of the two sculptures were mismatched. “I see the pictures from her wedding, and her husband’s head is gigantic,” he said. Gerry sounds like a perfectionist and a good sport, and I think that Linda’s Wikipedia page should be updated to say “Linda Christensen is one of two very talented butter carvers in the United States who works with live models. The other one is Gerry Kulzer and he rules.”
Anyway, the newest Princess Kay has recently been named in a masked coronation, and she told the news station that despite the cancelled Fair and different ceremony, “I still get my dream of wearing this crown and getting my likeness sculpted in butter.” We love a happy ending!!
Usually I try to write something topical or thought-provoking or whatever, but I have had an extremely busy, stressful few weeks, and this butter princess phenomenon brought me so much joy. Of course, if the story of Donna’s preserved butter head gains any traction, I’m sure that someone will emerge to tweet “this you?” with a link to an old newspaper article that proves that the cow that provided the butter for her sculpture would only allow Nazis to milk her or something similarly horrific. But for now, it simply appears to be a weird, delightful story about a weird, delightful tradition and every moment I spent researching more details was a moment spent distracted from the news.
I will write something of greater import next week when I feel more capable. I know that the human spirit is resilient, like butter in a freezer, and we will all trudge on despite hardship. One day, in a better year, butter princesses will no longer have to wear masks and Minnesotans can witness live butter sculpting in person again. That’s a future I want to believe in. It will be good, like butter.
More like this:
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“My middle school bully was a senile nun”