With women’s rights melting before our eyes, the 2022 New York State Fair, which starts today in Syracuse, has taken a bold stance for the ladies: an 800-pound butter sculpture of four girl athletes — a lacrosse player, track star, skier and gymnast — doing their little tricks around a giant jug of chocolate milk. The piece is called: “Refuel Her Greatness — Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Title IX.”
The butter tribute, like so many food-based civil rights victories, is sponsored by a trade association. That group is called the American Dairy Association, also known as Dairy Management Inc. — which, as the Atlantic put it in a piece on “cheese lobbying” from 2010, “serves one god: dairy sales.” But dairy marketing money is besides the point here; today is about celebrating the 54th annual butter sculpture unveiling at the New York State Fair.
The tradition of butter-based sculpture dates back to at least the Renaissance (though archaeologists have also “uncovered molds to shape breads and puddings into animal and human shapes at sites from Babylon to Roman Britain”), according to historian Pamela Simpson’s “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings: A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium.” Pope Pius V’s chef, for example, created a feast in 1536 with rotating centerpieces depicting nine scenes, including several butter sculptures of “an elephant with a palanquin” and “Hercules struggling with a lion,” per Simpson.
The art form didn’t transition from private luxury to public good until the 19th century, when an Arkansas woman presented a butter-based bas-relief of a sleeping woman’s bust, titled Dreaming Iolanthe, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Since then, it has become a state fair staple, as you can see from Sen. Chuck Grassley’s annual butter cow tweets, or at the Minnesota State Fair, where the state’s so-called “dairy princesses” compete to become a kind of dairy-related beauty queen called the “Princess Kay of the Milky Way,” all of whom have their likenesses cast in Grade AA salted butter.
New York’s latest entry into the canon was sculpted by veteran food sculptors, Jim Victor and Marie Pelton, who are technically from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The couple sat in a heavily refrigerated “butter booth” for 10 days to transform the nearly half-ton of butter — donated by O-AT-KA Milk Products Cooperative Inc., a Batavia, New York-based company that describes itself as a “contract manufacturer of dairy ingredients and value-added products such as dairy based beverages” — into the fair’s annual butter piece. Victor and Pelton don’t only work with butter; they also make sculptures from materials as varied as chocolate, cheese, and produce, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch. They are headed to Ohio next to sculpt a 700-pound cheese sculpture for the Great Geauga County Fair. But the couple has previously designed the past two decades’ worth of New York butter sculptures. That includes the following, per Syracuse.com:
- 2003: Mixin’ It With Milk
- 2004: Love for the Land
- 2005: Milk, Moms and Morning
- 2006: Healthy Goals
- 2007: Dairy Farming Today
- 2008: Cow Jumping Over the Moon
- 2009: Cow Power
- 2010: Dairyville 2020
- 2011: Feeding Our Future
- 2012: New York Goes for the Gold with Greek Yogurt
- 2013: Getting Fresh with Local Dairy
- 2014: The Great American Milk Drive
- 2015: Thanks for the Milk, Moo York!
- 2016: Milk Life Celebrates The Success of Team USA and the Athletes of New York State
- 2017: Dairy Farmers’ Tribute to New York State Troopers
- 2018: Your Milk Comes From A Good Place
- 2019: Milk. Love What’s Real
- 2020: Nourishing Our Future
- 2021: Back to School, Sports and Play … You’re Gonna Need Milk for That
- 2022: Refuel Her Greatness — Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Title IX
Unfortunately, their Title IX tribute cannot actually be eaten. After Labor Day, as Syracuse.com put it, the four girls will be “scraped into boxes and hauled to Noblehurst Farms,” where they will be “recycled in a methane digester to create electricity and liquid fertilizer for crops.” Now that’s a win for gender equality.