When the shape of a cow begins to pop out of a block of cheddar, Sarah Kaufmann is about to bring her latest cheese sculpture to life.
“And you stick a little eyeball in there and the cow comes alive,” she said. After you add a student, they “burst and look at you.”
Kaufmann wears a black and white Holstein pattern apron, complete with a bovine tail she made herself when she picks out cows, cacti, guitars or peaches at select Culver food truck stops “From Wisconsin With Love” this summer blocks of cheese heading to Milwaukee in the Deer District on August 3rd.
At the Milwaukee stop, guests can vote for a $5,000 donation from two Milwaukee charities – the Hunger Task Force or Camp Hometown Heroes. The group with the most votes will receive $5,000 and the runner-up will receive $2,500.
Kaufmann, a Manitowoc native, will not be molding cheese at this stop because she will be molding thousands of pounds of cheese at the Indiana State Fair. (Dean Murray, a 20-year food artist and sculptor who appeared on the Disney+ show Foodtastic last December, will be making cheese sculptures in the Deer District.)
However, Kaufmann has given us the facts about the art of cheese carving.
Some of Kaufmann’s earlier work may be recognizable to Deer District devotees. She carved Fear the Deer and the Milwaukee Bucks logo into cheese during the basketball team’s championship run in 2021.
More:Culver’s food truck to give away free frozen pudding and cheese curds during a stop in Milwaukee
She is an equal opportunity sculptor of sports in Wisconsin and has created a cheesy Bucky Badger and a Lombardi Trophy on many occasions.
To be fair, with more than 4,000 sculptures carved and counted, she’s boxed everything from Olaf the “frozen” snowman to the Statue of Liberty. Kaufmann is the cheesehead to call when you want a block of cheese of any size to become something.
A cow. The moon. (In this case, he really is made of cheese.) A life-size astronaut commemorating the 40th anniversary of the moonwalk. An even larger alligator wearing a chef’s hat while roasting a turkey – weighing 3,121 pounds – to break the Guinness World Record for largest cheese sculpture. Kaufmann held the previous record.
Among the hundreds of photos on her website (appropriately named sarahcheeselady.com), some of Kaufmann can be seen with her sculptures alongside former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart.
And it all started when Kaufmann scratched a few words into a block of cheese for her job as a graphic designer.
A born cheesehead and cheese sculptor
“I’m just a born cheesehead,” said Kaufmann.
Employed as a graphic artist for the dairy marketing organization now known as Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Kaufmann first carved a block of cheese for a slide show about the cheese-making process. This was in the early 1980s, so it was a slide show, with a bunch of slides shuffling around a circular tray after a button was clicked. The slideshow was used for educational presentations in schools, fairs and other events.
For the photo she used as the opening slide, Kaufmann carved “The Art of Cheesemaking” into a block of cheese.
Though Kaufmann was happy with the result, she didn’t think she would one day carve cheese.
During his 15-year tenure at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Kaufmann helped at trade shows, where he learned, among other things, how to attract attention with cheese displays in grocery stores.
Employees asked Kaufmann to carve a logo into a block of cheddar, the Leaning Tower of Pisa into a stick of mozzarella, or whatever else seemed appropriate. With no formal art training, Kaufmann set to work turning cheese into art.
Kaufmann cannot explain how she does it, only that it always works.
It’s usually the time, not the issue, that puts the most pressure on, she said. But she said her mind “kinda” splits up the work to keep her in line to meet the deadline.
In 1996 she left Wisconsin to become the creative director for Jungle Jim’s International Market in Cincinnati.
As soon as they arrived in their new home, Kaufmann’s former employer called and offered freelance work as a cheese sculptor.
For the next 10 years, Kaufmann was, as she puts it, moonlight. She often leaves Friday to carve cheese at events and returns to her job as creative director on Monday morning.
By 2006, Kaufmann’s sideline as a cheese sculptor had grown into a second full-time job. That’s when she quit her job as creative director at Jungle Jim’s.
“As a creative director, you don’t do the art or the creative stuff.”
She enjoyed the creative work of turning Cheddar into movie characters, race cars, famous landmarks and anything else that was desired.
You can evict the Cheese Lady from Wisconsin, but…
Kaufmann, the self-proclaimed cheese lady, likes to talk about cheese. From the cow’s milk to the quark to the packaging, she knows the process – and the art – of cheese making.
“I have all this stuff in my head,” she said. “I can talk about dairy and Wisconsin all day. Carving is just the catch. It’s an eye catcher. I can carve and talk at the same time.”
When viewers aren’t captivated by watching a picture slowly emerge from cheese, Kaufmann offers more allure. She hands them a piece of cheese that she has shaved, sliced, or skimmed off her sculpture.
Cheddar is available from Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel at every Culver stop.
Starting with two 40-pound blocks, Kaufmann carves them into a seamless sculpture that is approximately 22 inches high and 14 inches wide.
Cheddar is beautifully dense, Kaufman said of her favorite carving cheese. Also, it doesn’t melt during the 6 to 8 hours of carving, even when the temperatures at outdoor events are over 90 degrees.
Each Culver sculpture is consistent but unique in design.
Consistent because the city name, a cow, the Culver logo and the slogan “from Wisconsin with love” are carved into each sculpture.
Unique because iconic images are added at each place in the mix. A guitar and a baseball cap owned by the Guardians in Cleveland. Peaches and the Capitol in Atlanta. Cacti and hot air balloons in Arizona.
While following the artwork provided by Culver’s for these sculptures, Kaufmann often sketches her own designs.
“Making people is the hardest thing for me,” she said.
And that includes the Indiana State Fair’s cheese sculpture, which weighs nearly 2,000 pounds. This sculpture needed internal structures for support and help from college students who helped with the rough shaping. Kaufmann estimates that this project took about 400 hours of work in total.
In addition to state fairs and stops on Culver’s food truck tour this summer, Kaufmann’s work has taken her to eight Super Bowls.
The popular YouTube show Good Mythical Morning challenged Kaufmann to mold a famous movie death scene out of cheese.
In the segment, Kaufmann carves a bust of the black hat-wearing Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film, the character’s face is melted by spirits released from the ark. In the cheese replica, Kaufmann’s work is melted by two heaters.
The melting cheese almost replicates the movie scene. The clip, released in December 2017, has received more than 1 million views. Kaufmann said two people at Culver’s food truck events recognized her from the video.
Not every Kaufmann sculpture is doomed to melt away, but they rarely stand the test of time. Her works are usually dismembered, packaged and sold or given away.
The ephemerality of her work has a white cheddar lining.
“You can have your art and eat it, too,” Kaufmann said. “I will never be a starving artist.”
Contact Daniel Higgins at email@example.com. Follow @HigginsEats on Twitter and Instagram and like on Facebook.