At the great Minnesota get-together that is the State Fair in St. Paul, a lot of time is simply spent eating together. But to see what is perhaps this fair's most unusual tradition, step inside the Dairy Building, where a beloved indulgence is being transformed into a very unconventional work of art.
"As goofy as it is – and it is goofy! – it still really fulfills something for me," said Minnesota's Michaelangelo: Linda Christensen, who for 50 years has been carving her legacy in butter.
"And by the way, it is Grade AA salted butter, and it has to be salted," she said.
"Why" asked correspondent Ben Tracy.
"Because unsalted butter is gummy, and it sticks to my knife."
"What is butter like as a medium?"
"It's actually wonderful to work with. I can work it a little bit and put some back on if I make a mistake and re-carve it. It has a slightly translucent look to it, so it's very pretty."
Christensen cuts into a 90-pound block of butter with a knife she calls "Old Faithful." She works inside a refrigerated booth chilled to just 40 degrees.
Christensen studied sculpture in school, and got this job back in 1972 when the man who was doing it quit. "He got too cold!" she laughed.
"He couldn't hack it?" asked Tracy.
"He couldn't stand the cold."
"They had to bring in a tough woman!"
Over the course of about a single day, she painstakingly creates what Minnesotans affectionately call a "butter head." "I get as much of the face done as I can right at first," she said.
And the stakes are high; after all, Christensen is sculpting royalty. On the eve of the fair's opening day, the Dairy Association crowns its goodwill ambassador, the "Princess Kay of the Milky Way." This year the title went to 19-year-old Anna Euerle.
Tracy asked her, "What is this like for you to be sitting in here and having your likeness carved?"
"It doesn't feel real, to be honest with you," Euerle replied.
And for those who have been immortalized in saturated fat, a butter head is something to treasure.
Jeni Haler told Tracy, "We're a generation of butter heads. My mom was a butter head. And I have two older sisters that were also butter heads."
Some have kept theirs frozen for decades, waiting for family members to claim their moment of fair fame and complete the photo.
Former Princesses often return to the fairgrounds to show their gratitude. One woman told Christensen, "You carved my head 21 years ago in the butter booth. You've given us one of the greatest gifts a farm girl in Minnesota could have, and that's to be a butter head!"
In half a century, Christensen has carved more than 500 Princess Kays and members of her court.
"I could go anywhere in the state and say, 'I'm the butter sculptor at the State Fair,' and they would know somebody that I'd sculpted," Christensen said.
And she's happily been on the receiving end of plenty of "Minnesota Nice." "Minnesota people are the most forgiving audience you could ever imagine. They think it's great no matter what!" she laughed.
Of course, a lot has changed over the years, most notably the many hairstyles, but Christensen said something much more important evolved, too. "When I first started in 1972, the women were all planning careers in areas that we considered being typical women's areas. Now they're planning to take over the farm. Some of 'em already have their own herds."
And now, things have also changed for Christensen. A few years back, she left Minnesota winters behind and moved to California. At age 79, her hands don't tolerate the cold butter booth air as well as they once did.
And so, about a week ago, after revealing her final Princess Kay butter head, Christensen took out "Old Faithful" one last time, and passed the butter knife to her successor, sculptor Gerry Kulzer: "Gerry, I expect you to take very good care and use it wisely – my butter knife."
Tracy asked Christensen, "What's this feeling like for you right now?"
"I have very mixed emotions. It's a sad time for me, because I have looked forward to this every year for the last 50 years. I've made it 50 years. That's something to celebrate … It is a pretty good run!"
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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Carol Ross.
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