Every year in early January, the Pennsylvania Farm Show kicks off with the unveiling of a work of art—a sculpture made from more than 1,000 pounds of butter displayed in a refrigerated room. By August, the height of state fair season in the United States, tens of thousands of pounds of butter will have been layered atop frames of wire and canvas to form these unexpected artworks. Bucolic farm scenes and the ever-popular butter cows, as well as motorcycles, sports mascots, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, are just a few examples of butter sculptures from 2016.
The practice of using food as a medium for art dates back centuries. Butter sculptures, often of animals, were commonplace on the banquet tables of the Renaissance era, and the Buddhist practice of carving mandalas and deities from brightly tinted yak butter began in the fifteenth century (or earlier). But for the art historian Pamela Simpson, one of the few scholars on the subject, state fair dairy displays offer a uniquely American mix of abundance, artistry, and advertising.
In the late 1800s, food art was the way the American Midwest celebrated—and advertised—its agricultural abundance. In 1887, Sioux City, Iowa, blessed with an ample harvest, built a palace out of corn and grass, starting a trend of what Simpson calls “cereal architecture.” At the era’s international exhibitions, the United States was represented by such displays as a Liberty Bell constructed of oranges, a California state house shingled with almonds, and a life-sized knight fashioned from prunes.
But butter had an advantage over most agricultural products as an artistic medium: It had some similarity to clay. In the right hands—like those of ninteenth century artist Caroline Brooks—butter could be used to create fine art.
The artist Caroline Brooks preferred butter to clay. Butter was more responsive to the…