Butter Where Butter Shouldn't Be
May 1, 2021 12:37 PM   Subscribe

"I had butter in places a guy shouldn't have butter." On May 3, 1991, 20 million pounds of butter caught fire at a warehouse in Madison, WI. It took eight days to put it out entirely. Some video of the Great Butter Fire.
posted by escabeche (20 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard of Basque burnt cheesecake, but this is ridiculous
posted by StarkRoads at 12:46 PM on May 1

Davis said the DNR monitored the nearby waterways and very few fish died after the fire. He called it remarkable since the butter river appeared so quickly, giving crews barely any time to assemble materials and build embankments.

To be fair, it would take quite some time to marshal the requisite quantities of shallots, cream, white wine, vinegar, and giant whisks.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:47 PM on May 1 [24 favorites]

I want a list of places where this fellow thinks a guy should have butter.
posted by axiom at 12:49 PM on May 1 [8 favorites]

I want a list of places where this fellow thinks a guy should have butter.

Less than you'd think. [NSFW]
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:58 PM on May 1

I'm trying to figure out how to set this story to the tune of "Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas" (by Harry Chapin).
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:14 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

I remember this! The smell was pretty gross - the whole SE part of the city smelled like rancid butter.
posted by chbrooks at 1:14 PM on May 1 [12 favorites]

Wisconsin, of course. Where else?
posted by tommasz at 1:23 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

To be fair, it would take quite some time to marshal the requisite quantities of shallots, cream, white wine, vinegar, and giant whisks.

It's Béarnaise, not Burnaise, amirite?
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:30 PM on May 1 [11 favorites]

chbrooks: Thanks for that. I often wonder what the smells were like when I read stories. Scent is rarely mentioned in news or science stories. I always wonder if ancient Egyptian tombs had any kind of smell when they were opened, for instance. Or the inside of the ISS. Just about any story, I'm thinking "I wonder what it smelled like?"
posted by SoberHighland at 3:52 PM on May 1 [12 favorites]

posted by Joe in Australia at 6:55 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]

Any talk about butter needs this.

A poignant tale indeed.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:19 PM on May 1

Any talk about butter needs this.
I should probably check the situation in my fridge because I live at this intersection and I'll be coming up on that time of the week in a few hours.
posted by WaylandSmith at 9:51 PM on May 1


I see you've already clarified this comment.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:55 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]

I see you've already clarified this comment.

Just as there is ghee, there is also antighee.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:25 AM on May 2

Oddly enough, my Aunty Ghee was a firefighter. My mam-gu was ever so proud.
posted by howfar at 2:37 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]

The final scene from Impossible Vacation, but instead of Spaulding lying in a cold stream of a clear water staring at the stars it's me, lying in a hot stream of melted butter, watching burly midwestern firemen handle their hoses.
Oh my.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:21 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

So this happened in my neighborhood! And I'm a Wisconsin transplant which of course means I love the ridiculous things about the state even more than people who grew up here, so yeah. The day I learned about The Great Butter Fire was an amazing day.

I mean. A FLAMING RIVER OF BUTTER. It's too much
posted by gerstle at 10:29 PM on May 3

This is gold and I have sent it to everyone I know.
posted by kjs4 at 12:30 AM on May 4

I had high expectations for the summer of '91. The summer before I went back to Chicago when the dorms closed--not to home, but to stay at my mom's recently purchased condo. But for my sophomore year I lived off-campus and that meant I'd be staying for the summer. Although my friendship with my roommate was unraveling, our apartment offered a degree of freedom and independence I'd never had before. Madison would be my oyster. Except I needed a job.

Summer jobs were hard to come by. I stopped pursuing a dishwashing job because I, annoyed that they hadn't already recognized my brilliance, completely missed the point of having to show up for third interview. I signed up with a temp service and hoped for the best. There was only one interview, over the phone. Yes, I would do office work or labor, whatever you've got. Yes, I can get pretty much anywhere in town on my bike.

The dairy fire happened. It smelled for a few days but thankfully the wind shifted away from the center of town. It was a topic of conversation while we had finals and then it was over. A week later I got a call from the temp agency. Yes, I am available for work cleaning up after the fire. "Sounds interesting," I might have said. Yes, I'll be sure to wear some old clothes.

So I biked out to one of the industrial areas that ring the city. The site was a dairy that hadn't burned, but was down hill. Runoff had invaded their grounds and soaked into the dirt, and then sat for a week under the Midwest sun. An industrial park of dead grass and rancid buttery mud.

My memory is thankfully pretty hazy on the details, but I can tell you they had a week to figure out how to tackle the problem and what they came up with is a poor sap with a shovel and a box of garbage bags. Did they give me gloves? Did I have a co-worker? I don't remember. I know it was the worst work I've ever done. The sun was beating down, the stench was awful, my clothes were caked, and my beat-up imitation leather punk boots were not butterproof. But I did it. All morning long, I shoveled. There was no hope of making even a dent in the sea of muck, but I kept at it. Stopping would mean that I wasn't cut out for my summer of freedom, and there was no way I was going to let that happen.

After lunch I was offered a reprieve. I must have had a change of clothes and a chance to wash up a bit, but I don't remember what I did for food. They moved me inside to work the end of the production line. Stack empty milk crates as they arrive onto pallets, then stand back as one of the regular workers wraps them in stretchwrap. It was climate controlled and the work wasn't hard, but there was the stress of falling behind and holding up everyone else. Plus, I was a college kid in a room of blue-collar laborers. I would have expected them to give me a hard time, but they kept their distance and regarded me with a sense of pity. No doubt because I smelled like shit, but also because I had done the crap job they had all declined to do. Score one for the labor unions.

When I got back home I weighed by day's wages against the clothes I threw away and figured it was a net loss. The next morning I got another call from the temp agency. They dairy could use me for a few more days, they said. It would be production line work, no shoveling. No thank you, I said, and please don't call me again. They understood, they said.

A week later I got a job as a plasma collection center. There was only one interview, conducted while I sat in the phlebotomy chair, selling my plasma. I was hired as a screener. It was a year of increased concern about HIV, so besides taking temperatures measuring pulses, I spent my summer asking biker dudes if they had any recent tattoos or if they have sex with other men.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:10 PM on May 5 [4 favorites]

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