Food

A Look at the Great Art of Norma Lyon, the Butter-Cow Lady

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Of all the culinary arts that exist, none is greater than the fine craft of butter sculpture carving. And, to that extent, the greatest artist was Norma Lyon, the dairy farmer’s wife who carved pounds of salted butter each year into life-size figures of cows and people at the Iowa State Fair. Lyon died recently, and The New York Times takes a glimpse back into the life of a woman who might just give new meaning to the word “butter face.”

The earliest butter sculpture can be traced to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and the Iowa State Fair (where Lyon ultimately became the official sculptor) has featured a butter cow every year since 1911. Why sculpt butter? To promote dairy products, of course! Lyon began sculpting in 1960, and continued through to 2006. During this time she created such masterpieces as Barack Obama, The Last Supper, Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley, and American Gothic.

Lyon’s death is unfortunate, but she at least leaves behind a legacy of one of the truly great American crafts — one that is especially poignant, since each year the butter is recycled to make new sculptures. But her legacy can at least live on in pictures. (There is also a book about her life, The Butter Cow Lady by B. Greene, which features over 100 photographs.) If you’re thinking you have what it takes to be the butter lady, you should hold that thought. Lyon’s replacement when she retired in 2006, Sarah Pratt, apprenticed with her for 15 years, beginning when she was 14. Better start stocking up on sticks of Land O’Lakes.

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