She cut a wide swath through the eleven other young women.
Every one of them was pretty. To a girl they had skin as
white and creamy as lefse batter, blonde hair the color of
sunlight on honey, eyes as blue as a raspberry slushie
from the DQ. A brunette would have stood out like a turd
in a salad bar in this bunch. It didn't always work that
way. Some years, a brownhaired girl could even win the
Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy title. But not this year.
This year, the field was an Aryan army, with one Ashley
Kirsten Pederson as its general.
"Lana, did you use my lip gloss?" Ashley pouted when
she asked. She couldn't believe she was forced to spend
another minute with these piglets, girls she definitely
wouldn't hang with in her hometown. Probably they were all
farm girls, maybe even in 4H. Not her. She was just drop
dead gorgeous. Her parents happened to own a dairy farm,
but that wasn't her fault. "I asked, did you use it?
Because your lips are all glossy and it looks a lot like
Cherry Sugar Kiss from here."
"No, Ashley, I did not take your lip gloss. I have my
own." Lana, for her part, was not a member of 4H. She'd
been involved in Hands, Health, Head, and Heart as a kid
back when she had enjoyed riding horse and raising
rabbits, but once she hit high school, she became busy
with the demands of maintaining a 4.0 GPA, helping her mom
run the farm, and keeping her new boyfriend, Bud, on
Ashley gave her corn-silk hair one last fluff. "Fine."
She wasn't going to waste her time worrying about these
milk duds. She was the queen this year. And thanks to her
dazzling victory, Battle Lake was now in the enviable
position of supplying more Milkfed Marys than any other
town in the state of Minnesota. Ashley had made history.
A man wearing a pair of tiny head phones knocked before
poking his face in the second floor dormitory. "Ms.
Pederson?" Ashley swiveled and flashed her best smile. Her
teeth were white enough to trigger migraines. "You'll want
to grab your snow pants and coat. You're on in five."
Ashley took one last sip of her diet cola, her main
source of nutrition. She sucked the straw delicately, ice
clinking in the glass, as she imagined movie stars drank
their pop. Smiling at the glory that awaited her, she set
her drink down and grabbed her pine-green Columbia parka
and matching pants, both good to 40 below, and floated
down the cement steps that led to the massive cattle barn,
which she pranced through and outside into the already
steamy, late-August morning. The sun sparkled off her
tiara and turned the sequins on her strapless, pale blue
gown into a million glittering sapphires. She waved and
the cameras flashed, clicking and popping like
firecrackers. She didn't lose stride as she crossed the
pavement, her right arm in constant motionâ€” elbow, elbow,
wrist wrist â€” and entered the front doors of the Dairy
Building, which were being held open for her.
As she strode to the southwest corner of the edifice,
she passed the House of Cheese on her right. It was a
misnomer. There was no house, only a glassed-in display
featuring the history of the cheese industry in Minnesota,
illustrated with plastic cheeses in every shade of white,
yellow, and orange shaped into wedges, slices, and rounds.
On her left stood the Dairy Goodness concession stand,
which had been selling malts, yogurt, cheese, cones,
sundaes, and icy cold glasses of milk in three flavors
since 1945. The line to the front counter already snaked
outside the building, and those waiting for their hit of
calcium whispered excitedly as Ashley sailed past.
Overhead fans lifted Ashley's hair as she glided toward
the refrigerated, glass-walled octagonal booth. It was
twelve feet high and nine feet across, rested on a four
foot base, and housed the most popular exhibit on the
massive grounds. The clamoring crowd shoved and hustled to
catch a glimpse of the queen nearing her icy throne,
parting like an overweight white sea so she could float
through. Ashley felt like a rock star. Ever the
professional, she paused for one final photo shoot in
front of the glass-sided gazebo before slipping behind to
the curtained anteroom. Organizers had recently spruced up
the queen's booth, and it carried the faint smell of new
paint. The predominant color was white with red and blue
trim. A single strand of scarlet twinkle lights crowned
the top of the structure, and inside, twelve 90-pound
blocks of butter were arranged like a spreadable
Stonehenge, eleven in a circle on the outside with one in
the center: hers.
Her grin inched up to her eyes, and in a move she had
practiced countless times in front of one of her full-
length mirrors at home, she turned gracefully on her heel,
showing just a hint of upper thigh through the slit of her
gown, and slipped behind the blue curtain that separated
the entrance of the booth from the excited crowd. The
private area was really a small hall. To her left were the
four wooden stairs that led to the door of the gazebo. To
her right were about a million plastic spoons. Dairy
Goodness, whose kitchen was at the other end of the hall,
had run out of storage space.
Ashley dropped her smile. "Are you ready for me?"
The sculptor nodded from her post guarding the door to
the booth. She was a fill-in this year and as nervous as a
wicked thought in church. "You'll want to pull up those
pants and zip your jacket before we go in. It's only 38
degrees in there, and we've got a full day ahead of us."
Ashley yanked on her snowpants and adroitly tucked her
gown inside, illustrating the axiom that no one can stuff
a dress into winter gear like a Minnesota gal. They
learned the skill in preschool and improved on technique
from there. Once her lower half was swaddled, she zipped
her jacket to her chin and pulled woolly mittens out of
the pockets, tugging them tight.
When Ashley looked ready for a full-on blizzard, the
sculptor marched up the four stairs, took a shaky breath,
and pulled open the single door to the booth. A rush of
icy air met the wall of humid heat. The crowd outside the
booth went silent, reacting to the sight of the open door
visible through the glass.
"Wish me luck!" Ashley called out in her sparkly voice,
pausing for one more photo opportunity as a photographer
ducked his head behind the curtain, against the rules, to
catch sight of the queen entering her throne room. She was
a natural, the Marilyn Monroe of Minnesota's dairy
industry. That ability to turn it on and off for an
audience is why she'd sailed through the judging, where
she'd been required to bluff her way past questions about
the dairy industry and feign enthusiasm for pasteurized
"How long can you keep milk after the expiration date?"
"Well, sir, milk is a delicious product any day of the
week, but it is best to drink it before the expiration
date. In a pinch, though, it's always better to drink old
milk than fresh pop!"
The judges shared nods of approval. "Excellent. And how
important is calcium to the human body?" "Not very, unless
you like having bones!"
Ashley had the judges and the audience in stitches and
on the edge of their seats. When she had been called
forward with Lana and Christine, the two other runners-up,
the weight of the crown on her head had brought her no
surprise, only a feeling of justice being done. Now, the
world was her palm pilot. Winning the title of Milkfed
Mary, Queen of the Dairy promised local and even national
media attention. She was scheduled to appear on Good
Morning America next week, and there was whispering of an
Oprah appearance. All she had to do was get through today.
When the last click faded, Ashley took her seat inside
the booth, trying not to gag at the smell of greasy milk.
She was lactose intolerant, and the blocks of Grade A
salted butter surrounding her made her want to ralph.
Instead, she sat prettily, not even twitching as the floor
of the eight-sided booth began rotating slowly, allowing
everyone a generous view of the magic happening inside,
the only angle not viewable the one behind the now-closed
door to the booth.
And so opened the Minnesota State Fair, the country's
second largest, with a tradition begun by the Midwest Milk
Organization back in 1955: on the first day of the fair,
Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, chosen out of some 80
county dairy princesses and then twelve finalists, posed
as a larger-than-life likeness of her head was carved out
of a block of butter inside of a glass-sided, rotating
refrigerator. Every day after that, for eleven more days,
the runners-up also were seated and immortalized in the
special booth, but no butter carving was as grand as the
first one of the fair. That's what Ashley was telling
herself as she shivered despite her parka and mittens. She
felt a killer headache developing but didn't let it touch
She tried passing time by brainstorming what she would
do with her sculpture after the fair. Some past winners
had donated their butter heads to their churches to be
used in local festivals, either to make cookies and pies
with or to roll corn on the cob on. Some women saved their
heads in their chest freezer, between the venison sausage
and the frostbitten hamburger, not ready to throw away
that tie to their glorious past. Ashley envisioned
something grander for hers. Maybe she would feature it as
the centerpiece at her wedding next summer, or donate it
to Alexandria Technical College, where she was planning to
study sales and marketing when fall semester began. The
college president could build a refrigerated case and
display the butter head in the main entryway, with a
plaque making clear that Ashley was, in fact, among them.
She turned tranquilly, pats of butter falling to the floor
from the sculptor's efforts. Even the rising tightness in
her chest couldn't distract her from her happy place. She
blinked rapidly and wondered why it was becoming so foggy
in the booth.
The sculptor worked busily and with a total focus on
her masterpiece. She had big shoes to fill. Linda Gerritt
had sculpted every single Milkfed Mary head since the
inception of the pageant, but she had broken her right arm
the week before the fair, and her fill-in was under clear
instructions to do everything as it had always been done.
So, she used seven tools, not including her hands â€”
knives, wires, other tricks of the trade. She began the
sculpting with a serrated bread knife to get the general
shape and followed with a ribbon tool to refine angles.
Her philosophy of butter carving was not to force the art
but rather to let the face within the dairy emerge of its
own accord. Fortunately, butter was a forgiving medium.
Too much off the nose, and all she had to do was scoop
some off the floor and pat it back into place. Bangs not
high enough? Take a little from the rear of the head and
slap it on the front.
The sculptor's work soon consumed her, and her nerves
subsided as the many faces outside staring at her and
Ashley as if they were zoo creatures faded. The world
became a small,rotating, octagonal prison. The sculptor
wouldn't allow music â€” it distracted her â€” and so the
booth was as quiet as a tomb when the lights unexpectedly
flickered out. The outage lasted less than two minutes.
When questioned later, the sculptor could only recall
violent retching and scrabbling from Ashley's side of the
booth, several moments of complete darkness, followed by a
slash of brightness as someone opened the north doors and
held them open to ease the panicked rustling of those in
the building. Soon after, the lights were back on, and
Ashley Kirsten Pederson, 54th Milkfed Mary, Queen of the
Dairy, proud owner of a promise ring from Dirk Holthaus,
and soon-to-be college freshman, was dead on the floor of
the still-spinning octagon.