Monday, December 12, 2016

Minnesota’s Princess Tradition

Maybe we all just want our heads carved in butter.

Illustration by Lupi McGinty.
Illustration by Lupi McGinty.

Little girls in Minnesota grow up knowing who Princess Kay of the Milky Way is—that darling of the State Fair immortalized in churned creamy goodness, wholesome as a glass of fresh Minnesota milk. We also grow up believing there’s nothing weird about having your head carved in butter. If anything, it’s something to aspire to.

In the middle of the country, 11 years into the new millennium, we still hold high that idea of a dairy princess—as well as both the human and butter embodiment of it—as something integral to our Minnesotan culture. Of course there’s a Princess Kay. Of course she has her head carved in butter.

Each year, a new Princess Kay is crowned on the eve of the Minnesota State Fair’s opening. She is chosen from a group of 12 finalists, themselves selected out of more than 100 county dairy princesses. It’s a tradition started in 1954 by the Midwest Dairy Association, though it wasn’t until 1965 when the whole butter head thing began, with each of the 12 finalists—the newly crowned princess the first among them—receiving the honor of sitting for her own buttery sculpture inside a glass-walled refrigerator in the Dairy Building at the State Fair.

Alas, though young girls may dream, not just anyone can become Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Agriculturally ignorant suburbanites and the lactose intolerant need not apply. Ditto that for the married or pregnant, the too young or too old. (You need to be out of high school but younger than 24 with no children or spouse.) These qualifications and others are plainly stated in the Dairy Princess Rules, with lines like: “You must be a genuine user of dairy products and a genuine supporter of the dairy industry and its future success.” Take soy with your latte? Find another pageant.

But pageant isn’t the right word. We’re not talking baton twirling and evening gowns; we’re talking advocating for the dairy industry and real, demonstrable agriculture knowledge. One of the central stipulations for competing for the title is that you or your parents or guardians must work in the dairy industry. (It’s like how in order to be crowned Miss Hooters International you have to be an employee of Hooters. But not really.)

There are precise regulations for Princess Kay competition, many of them dairy-specific and others seemingly plucked from the more pageant-y of pageants, like Miss USA. For example, you’d have to forfeit the Princess Kay title if you got hitched or knocked up during your reign as goodwill ambassador for the dairy industry. Scandalous as that may sound, Seena Glessing, Dairy Princess Consultant (her business cards are pink with a decorative little crown), says there have been no Vanessa Williams–like offenses to speak of in the program’s 58-year history. According to Glessing, Princess Kay hopefuls are the salt of the earth—or the cream that rises to the top.

“We’re working with pretty top notch girls,” Glessing said. “The average GPA this year is 3.83.”

In that sense, maybe Minnesotans are so comfortable revering the beloved Princess Kay because we don’t have to worry about her answering an agriculture question the way the poor, infamous Miss South Carolina answered a question about our country’s students and geography in 2007’s Miss Teen USA pageant, stammering something about South Africa and “the Iraq.”

Glessing is a former Princess Kay finalist and current agriculture teacher. She was raised on a dairy farm in Southwest Minnesota, and she and her husband are dairy farmers today. Like other Princess Kay hopefuls before and after her, Glessing is a homegrown dairy enthusiast for whom the Dairy Princess rules were no issue; she was raised in the dairy industry and would go on to raise her own children in it as well.

You see, Princess Kay is the Minnesota Nice princess. The Princess Kay contest is the antithesis to the big-haired, spray-tanned, heels-and-swimsuit pageants that also (somehow) still exist. These girls are not crown-hungry divas clawing at each other in uncivilized attempts at snagging the coveted title and associated glory. These are Midwestern farm girls. Their enthusiasm for the dairy industry is genuine. Unless the Dairy Princess training the finalists undergo over a summer week at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph is a disguised session on how to appear more wholesome than you are (and it would take a Sandra Bullock–style infiltration of the competition to know for sure) these ladies really do compete for this title at least partially—if not primarily—to aid and honor the industry in which they were raised.

Dairy Princess Consultant Glessing acknowledges that more and more consumers are further and further removed from the farm, and dairy may be a less visible industry than it once was, but that doesn’t mean Minnesotans have given up ice cream and butter. It just means they might not think about how the creamy treats get into their kitchen.

The Dairy Dynasty: Katie Miron and the Milky Way Tradition

“It’d be difficult to open up a fridge in Minnesota and not find a dairy product,” 2010 Princess Kay Katie Miron said, and that’s enough of a reason to spend a year reminding Minnesotans the origins of their milk. Like Kemps says, It’s the cows, stupid. Or am I mixing my adages? At any rate, it is the cows, as well as the farmers and families who tend to them. Though there may be fewer of them around, family dairy farms exist in Minnesota and remain a very real part of the economy and culture.

Miron, who was the reigning Princess Kay before passing the title to Mary Zahurones Wednesday night, grew up just outside of the Twin Cities in Hugo, on a farm founded in 1887. She and her siblings are the fifth generation of her family to live and work on the farm. Although growing up on a dairy farm may sound like a thing of the past, Miron points out that hers is one of over 4,000 families in Minnesota with this story to tell.

Four thousand is a big number. But it’s not as big as 8,500, the number of Minnesota dairy farms at the turn of the millennium. And it’s certainly not as big as 27,000, the number of farms in 1980. Given the ever-decreasing numbers of dairy farms, Glessing said it’s more important now than ever to have Princess Kay of the Milky Way, as the central role of the crowned Princess Kay is—no, not having her likeness sculpted in butter at the State Fair—to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the dairy industry.

There may be no Princess Kay scandal in the competition’s history, but there is this recent phenomenon: a concentration of three Princess Kays in one family over the past several years. Katie Miron, the 2010 and 57th Princess Kay is younger sister to the 2007 Princess Kay, Ann Miron Tauzell, and sister-in-law to the 2008 Princess Kay, Kristy Mussman Miron. Katie and Ann are only the second pair of sisters to have ever been crowned Princess Kay; the 2002 and 2009 Princesses are sisters are the others.

Of the last 10 Princess Kays, half of them are closely related to another Princess Kay from the same decade, by blood or through marriage. Perhaps this is evidence of a smaller pool of potential princesses today than there were when dairy farms were more prevalent in Minnesota. With the number of active dairy farms dwindling, so goes the number of qualified Princess Kay hopefuls.

Now entering her third year at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Katie Miron is studying agricultural education and following in the footsteps of her sister Ann, who is an agriculture teacher. Their sister-in-law Kristy, the third Princess Kay in the family, works for Land O’ Lakes, having had a unique and distinctive experience with butter to put on her resume. Moving from farms to classrooms and companies, these celebrated young women hope to continue to aid the industry after the title of Princess Kay is passed on to another.

Away from the Farm, into the Display Case, out to the Corn-fed Masses

Times have changed since the first Minnesota Dairy Princess was crowned in 1954. Nearly 60 years and a couple of generations later, dairy families are fewer and farther between, milkman is no longer a viable career prospect (paranoid husbands everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief). Milk could soon cost $5 per gallon, and soy lattes and almond milk are on the rise. It makes sense for the Dairy Princesses out there to protect and promote the threatened industry that provides livelihoods for them and their families.

But what about the rest of us? Those whose earliest milk memories are of cardboard cartons at elementary school, waiting in single file lines and hoping there were enough chocolate ones in the crate. What does being Princess Kay mean for those of us who have never gotten up close and personal with an udder?

Maybe Midwesterners are just inherently nostalgic. Princess Kay’s been around long enough to become part of a shared past, and it’s easy to support a crowning competition that asks a young woman to be knowledgeable about dairy and doesn’t ask her to walk around in a two-piece.

The really big question that remains, of course, is just what does one do with one’s own butter bust? Apparently, more often than you might think, one eats it. Not alone, of course. These hefty butter heads are sculpted out of 90-pound blocks of Grade A butter. But with friends, family, and sometimes strangers at events called corn feeds, some Princess Kays and Princess Kay finalists—including Glessing, Katie Miron’s sister Ann, and soon Miron herself—have gathered to slather bits of their buttery likeness onto ears of corn, putting the kitschy art pieces to practical use.

As Miron says, “Dairy farmers don’t waste anything.”

Royalty throughout the Seasons

Princess Kay isn’t the only chance for Minnesotan girls to capture a crown. At the coldest point of the year, when many of us are still digesting the latest on-a-stick concoction from five months earlier, the St. Paul Winter Carnival is held just as it has been since 1886, complete with its own royalty, accompanied by a legend and characters.

Madalyn Dosch had her heart set on being crowned since she was pint-sized princess hopeful back in Osceola, Wisconsin. After failing to nab the title of Little Miss Osceola in the second grade, Dosch set her sights on the Miss Osceola pageant, which she took at age 15. As part of her reign, she visited St. Paul for the Winter Carnival and was overtaken by the spectacle of the Winter Carnival royalty, and Aurora, Queen of the Snows—she is the fairest maiden in the realm, after all.

Determined to be part of the 125-year tradition (which notably was started to prove wrong a New York reporter who called the city unfit for human habitation during our cooler months), Dosch moved to St. Paul at age 18 to attend St. Thomas and later ran for Winter Carnival royalty. The Queen of the Snows eligibility restrictions are more lax than those for Princess Kay, incidentally, requiring only that the applicant be a female high school graduate over 21. Poise and a well-groomed appearance are listed selection factors as well, and Winter Carnival Royalty are expected to round up a surprising chunk of change—including an $800 fee for the Candidate Program—but no one’s expected to know how to milk a cow. It couldn’t hurt your chances, though.

Dosch is now the reigning Aurora, serving as a goodwill ambassador for the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the St. Paul community. She may not have a butter head carving to roll sweet corn in, but she does get to play the role of Aurora for a year, and that’s enough for Dosch. It may be enough, in fact, for a lifetime.

“I think this is going to be the end of the road for me as far as wearing a crown,” Dosch said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for her goodwill. After her reign, she plans to volunteer with the St. Paul Winter Carnival and serve on the board of the Former Queens club (which sounds like an organization for reformed cross dressers, but it’s not).

New Kingdoms in the Internet Age: Here Comes the Poultry Princess

Alysha Thielen, a University of Minnesota–Crookston student from Zimmerman is the first ever Minnesota 4-H Poultry Princess. It’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way but, you know, with chicken. And at this year’s State Fair, as a new Princess Kay is crowned and another butter head goes down in history, Thielen will pass the feathery torch to the next Poultry Princess.

Thielen, a 4-H veteran, chose to compete for the title—which is co-sponsored by the organization and Gold’n Plump—on a bit of a lark. She had chosen to take her poultry to the State Fair last year and heard about the poultry royalty (there’s a Poultry Prince as well) at a meeting. To be considered, she learned she would have to go through an interview that would show her poultry knowledge was not paltry; participate in a showmanship round that demonstrated she knew how to handle the chickens she’d raised; demonstrate dancing, clucking, or walking like a chicken in a final showcase; and compete in a barbecue contest. (No, the contestants are not required to cook their own chickens. Gold’n Plump provides them with chicken halves they haven’t hatched and raised since chick-hood.)

For Thielen, being crowned Poultry Princess was something of a Midwestern fairy tale. As a girl, Thielen fought a fear of feathers. Pteronophobia: look it up.

“Everybody in my family got into chickens to help me get over my feather fear. Ever since I was little I was totally afraid of feathers,” Thielen said. Raising chickens helped Thielen overcome her fear of the fluffy white things and today she’s representing the chickens, or the industry they power, as a princess.

The Poultry Princess competition seems to capitalize on the special place in our collective heart reserved for Princess Kay, hoping to eek out a corner for itself. Gimmicky or not, participating in the fresh new festival royalty competition paid off for Thielen. While she didn’t get her head carved in butter either, or the poultry equivalent of it (whipped egg whites?), Thielen received a $1,000 scholarship with her title, which she put toward a May term trip to China, and where perhaps the deep-fried chicken feet were more frightening than the feathers. (Just wait, that’ll be the next thing on a stick at the Fair.)

The Legacy of Butter Doesn’t Fade

But why keep doing it? Why keep crowing a Dairy Princess every year and even expanding on the tradition with titles like Poultry Princess? If next year there’s a Swine Princess who’s made to oink for the title, we may finally cross over from the quaint and slightly absurd to the just plain ridiculous.

Wherever we go from here, the butter carving obsession doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. Now there’s a Facebook app to Butter-Fy Yourself, providing all of us, even the married, pregnant and lactose-intolerant, to experience a glimpse of the buttery glory, if only on a computer screen.

We are six decades past the 1950s and even the Princess Kay representatives themselves acknowledge that as a culture we’re moving further and further from the single dairy family-owned farm, yet here we are holding on to our agricultural icons, and even creating new ones. Maybe Minnesotans are more sentimental and wholesome than we’d like to admit.

Or maybe, somewhere deep inside, we all just want our heads carved in butter.

Ashle Briggs Horton is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and a cat named Bijou.