By ROBB MURRAY, The Free Press of Mankato
MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Butter. It drips off our corn cobs, yellows our popcorn at the multiplex, melts mouth wateringly on our French toast and pancakes.
But at no time is our love affair with butter more lovably apparent than each year at the end of summer, when a hundred thousand people gather in St. Paul for the great Minnesota get together.
And no woman is more responsible for it than Linda Christensen, who for 40 years had been the artist responsible for taking 90-pound butter blocks and sculpting then into visions of yellow beauty.
Christensen came to New Ulm recently to visit the Associated Milk Producers Inc. plant, the state's largest butter factory. She came to see the place where, since 1933, the butter for the famous butter busts comes from.
The butter sculpture has been one of the most enduring, and endearing, traditions at the State Fair. Young women compete to be one of the 12 princesses to come to the fair. Girls must live or work on a dairy farm.
Then, in the days just before the fair starts, the winner is crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way, and her likeness is carved on opening day at the fair. On the remaining days, the likenesses of the other princesses are carved.
Over the years, Christensen has carved more than 450 sculptures and whittled her way through roughly 32,000 pounds of butter. Along the way, she's picked up some butter wisdom.
She says salted butter carves much nicer than unsalted butter. Freezing butter prior to carving doesn't work; it flakes away a manner unbecoming a dairy princess. Sometimes there are air pockets in the butter, although AMPI President and CEO Ed Welch said the company's head butter guy, John Russell, does his best to make the butter as air-free as he can.
And sometimes, well ... mistakes are made.
"One year, as I was turning the sculpture at the very end, I turned it to show (the girl) and the stand came loose from the old floor and the sculpture went right over on its face," Christensen said.
For the most part, though, carving butter has been a smooth experience, one she relishes and has no plans to give up.
"In Minnesota, I'm somebody for 12 days," she said. "I enjoy the attention."
Getting to know the girls, she said, has made being the butter sculptor worth it as well.
"One of the things I did not foresee is how involved I would become with not only the dairy industry community but these communities that support the princess contestants," Christensen said.
Current Princess Kay of the Milky Way Katie Miron said the butter busts are like trophies. She called her work "amazing," and said sitting with Christensen while the artist is at work is a treat for any of the girls who get the honor.
"What it comes down to is Linda, who until (recently had) never been to a dairy farm, has believed in the dairy industry, has learned about the dairy industry for 40 years," Miron said. "She's listened to girl after girl ramble on about her favorite cow or her favorite thing to do on the farm, and she shares with us her 40 years of experience."
Former Princess Kay of the Milky Way Sarah Schmidt now works for AMPI. She brought her butter head in from Hutchinson, where her mother stores it and the two other butter heads earned by her two sisters.
"If you're wondering what butter looks like when it's nine years old, here you go," she said. "It's holding up very, very nicely."
She recalled her day in the booth with Christensen. With thousands of people stopping by the booth to gaze upon the princess and the butter, she said the Christensen experience was a soothing one.
"Linda had a name for it," Schmidt said. "It's called `butter booth hypnosis.' The booth slowly turns around and it's cool and you're comfortable and Linda is calmly sculpting you in butter and pretty soon you fall asleep - and I was definitely that princess. But we had a lot of fun I will always remember."
Information from: The Free Press
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)