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This month, at a call center in Naperville, Illinois, outside of Chicago, 50 Thanksgiving saviors are coaching thousands of Americans through myriad turkey crises. The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, 39 years running, has been assisting anyone who has questions about how to buy, prepare, cook, store and otherwise salvage their turkey, free of charge.
Back in 1981, a mere six home economists staffed the hotline, keeping useful information stored on a Rolodex. Today, anyone with a bird to cook can reach out via phone, text, e-mail, chat and even their Alexa device. The 50-strong team consists of culinary instructors, hospital dieticians and turkey experts. Some hold full-time jobs but use vacation time to work Turkey Talk shifts.
The hotline opens in October, to assist Canadians with their holiday, with the U.S. line opening from November 1 through Christmas Eve. On Thanksgiving Day alone the center receives nearly 10,000 calls, with gobbler guides slurping turkey soup (of course!) to soothe their vocal chords. At 6 p.m. they close shop and head home to their own Thanksgiving dinners.
“We may have to walk a father through the entire cooking process, or help someone who called from a supermarket while purchasing a turkey,” says 18-year Turkey Talk veteran Nicole Johnson. “This is their holiday with friends, they want to make it the best that it can be, so we treat every call seriously. But there certainly are a lot of cute stories we have heard.” Here, Johnson relays some of the more amusing hotline anecdotes from over the years.
Really Hot Hot rods
A grandma called us once who loved having her grandkids help in the kitchen. As she was stuffing her turkey, her grandsons were playing with Matchbox cars. I guess they decided to play a little joke on Grandma when she turned her back. When Grandma returned to her turkey, everything looked fine and she put it in the oven. An hour or so later one of the little boys was chuckling suspiciously, and Grandma asked where their Matchbox cars were. The grandkids started giggling and pointed at the oven. They had parked their cars in the turkey’s cavity as if it was a garage! Grandma had to interrupt the cooking process to remove them, and called us to make sure nothing would be wrong, which there wasn’t.
We got a call from a young woman and she was whispering into the phone, as if she was hiding from someone. We were puzzled and couldn’t figure out why. We’re thinking, “Is she safe?” Then we discovered that she was a new bride, and her mother-in-law, who was an awesome, seasoned cook, was in the other room. The new bride didn’t even know where to put the meat thermometer and didn’t want her mother-in-law to find out! She was so embarrassed—you could hear it in her voice. We sent her one of our tutorial videos and I know she left the conversation feeling very confident.
We had a flustered dad who was on turkey duty and called in the early evening about thawing his bird. One of our safe and acceptable methods is the cold-water bath. It’s perfect for those who don’t have refrigeration space or are short on time. You leave the wrapper on the turkey, put it in a cold-water bath in the kitchen sink and change the water every 30 minutes. Now when we say bath, we don’t mean in the bathtub, but this father really took that term seriously. He decided he was going to thaw his turkey with his toddler twins in the bathtub. Just imagine a floating turkey in there with two kids, some bubbles and bath toys. We could hear splashing and laughing, children singing and the dog barking. All we kept thinking was, “Oh, my gosh, that poor mom when she comes home.” He, of course, thought it was the funniest thing. We always talk about that one during our training sessions.
The number-one question we get is, “How do you go about thawing a turkey?” It typically takes anywhere between three to five days to thaw in the refrigerator, and folks will call us the day before the meal, really short on time, having done something they know may not be safe. We’ve heard everything from, “My spouse put it in the dishwasher and it’s still in the wrapper,” to, “I forgot I left it in the back of my car,” which is not a good thing. We’ve also heard from people whose turkeys are thawing in the Jacuzzi and want to know if that’s okay. Can you imagine this gorgeous outdoor hot tub and this turkey just kind of floating around?! A lot of times we have these calls on speaker and we are all laughing along.
With 50 of us here, we rarely get stumped, but some calls can give us a twist. We had one where the turkey started in the oven for an hour, then the dinner was moved to their in-laws, which meant a 30-minute commute for the bird. When they arrived, a cheese casserole was already in the oven and needed another 45 minutes. They decided to throw the turkey on the grill, but the grill wouldn’t heat up, so they cut the turkey apart and finished it off in the roaster. These are the times several of us get together and think about things from a food-safety perspective. How long did it sit on the counter? Did they use a meat thermometer? These are the kinds of investigations where we put our thinking caps on.
Marge in Charge
We get people who call every year, and a lot of times they want to talk with Marge Klindera. She is an 83-year-old retired home-economics teacher; she’s been with us for 36 years and she is simply the best. Marge is what you would envision your grandma to be. People will call and say, “I have a new recipe that I want to run past Marge really quick.” And if we tell them that Marge isn’t working until a certain time or date, those people will call back. She is certainly a fan favorite.