I’ve been speaking turkey on the Butterball Talk-Line for 18 years. I like to consider myself a Turkey tutor, even though a caller once called me their Turkey godmother, which sounds kind of neat.
When the Talk-Line was first introduced in 1981, there were six housekeepers, who will do 11 that year. 1,000 calls answered, from Canada’s Thanksgiving Festival in October to holiday celebrations in December.
Today there are 50 of us, both men and women. These days we answer calls, texts, emails, live chats and questions on social media. We also have a Spanish talk line and there is even a Butterball Skill app on Amazon Alexa that has pre-recorded answers from talk line experts to the most common questions.
Due to COVID-19, call volume has increased as more and more people stay at home and cook for the first time.
Everyone who works on the talk line has extensive knowledge of preparing food, from dietitians to food scientists and researchers to cooks. I was a home economics teacher in Aurora, Illinois high school for 38 years. Every summer I practiced at a grocery store to make sure I was teaching the students what they needed to know.
One summer I was working in the test kitchen at ConAgra Foods, which was owned by Butterball at the time, and there I learned about the talk line. I remember thinking, « If I retire, I’ll do this » and that is exactly what I did.
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Here we can personally test various options for cooking a turkey in our commercial test kitchen, getting to know new products and doing both telephone and media training over several days. During our first three years of employment we are considered “newbies” and have to attend the training again every year. In our fourth year we only need to attend advanced cooking method training. However, we can always return to Butterball University if we feel we need a refresher.
Due to the pandemic, our training has taken a different turn this year. We always get turkey homework, but this time we had to do it from home. We were all given the job of spatchcocking a turkey, which has become a very popular cooking method. Then we had to take photos and send them in for feedback. We had two weeks to complete the assignment and then we all came together online and discussed the results as a group.
Traditionally, in the years leading up to the pandemic, we took calls side by side in a large room located in a building in Naperville, Illinois. I have a direct line to a manager when I need to talk to someone and discuss a caller’s question. Although I miss my colleagues, it is fun to sit in my kitchen all day and talk about Turkey.
At the beginning of the season, our shifts last four hours. As we approach vacation they become six hours long and eventually work their way up to eight hours per shift.
Sometimes when I answer the phone, the person on the other end of the line says, « Are you a real person or is it a recording? » and they are always so excited when i tell them i am the right one. People really crave that human connection and personal advice.
We guide callers through defrosting the refrigerator or defrosting cold water. This is the way to go when you are in dire straits. Over the years, we’ve received calls from desperate men and women looking for last-minute ways to thaw their turkey. The wildest calls came from people asking if they could wrap their turkey in an electric blanket or put it in a hot tub to defrost it faster (spoiler alert: not possible due to food safety guidelines!). If you’re into a jam and are pressed for time, you can always buy a fresh whole turkey that doesn’t need to be thawed and takes little prep time.
Another popular question is, « How do I know when my turkey is ready? I always say that it is very important to have a meat thermometer that should read at least 170 degrees in your chest and 180 degrees in your thighs. ».
I once had a group of very angry people call me on the speakerphone to tell me their 21 pound turkey was out of meat. It took a little while for a light to go out in my head and I told them to turn the turkey over. It turned out they had roasted the turkey upside down. They were delighted when they turned the turkey over and saw all the juicy meat. They told me I saved the day.
Another time a man called me and told me he was going to propose Thanksgiving and asked if it was safe to put the engagement ring on the turkey. It took a while, but I finally convinced him to put the ring in a box next to the turkey instead.
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Everyone longs for normalcy. Our theme this vacation at Butterball is « Celebrate the Good ». It is a reminder to people that although the gatherings may be different and smaller, there is still much to celebrate.
Our job is to make your celebration easier, whether answering your questions or providing a shopping list to ensure you make fewer trips to the store. We also offer video tutorials that teach you everything from choosing your turkey to various cooking methods such as roasting, deep-frying, air-frying, and roasting.
When it comes to how much turkey to buy, my advice is « Go Big »! Turkey is such a cheap protein and if you have leftovers you can send anyone home with care packages, which I love to do.
This year, I’ve spoken to many people who will be celebrating Thanksgiving at home while they visit family and friends at Zoom. Some prepare the same menu so they can compare how it all turned out. I’ve also heard of people confusing it and making Greek turkey, Cajun turkey, and even a southwestern one.
I’m going to work on Thanksgiving and then go to a friend’s house to celebrate.
On Saturday, I plan to cook Thanksgiving in my house. It will be different from previous years. There will only be five of us, wearing masks, and splitting into two different rooms to observe social distancing.
I always thaw turkey in the fridge, so it’s there right now. I use the open pan method because I want a traditional roast turkey taste and look, but before I brush the turkey with oil, I add a combination of spices to the oil. This year I will be using traditional spices – thyme, sage, chopped fresh rosemary and a little paprika. Then I rub this mixture all over the turkey.
Although I don’t plan on stuffing the turkey this year, I’ll be adding onions, celery, carrots, and some chopped fennel to the den. I also plan to serve carrots, parsnip puree, creamed fennel, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans with mushroom sauce, and a stuffed turban squash. For dessert, I serve pecan pumpkin pie and a cranberry pie. Then I hollow out small pumpkins to fill with cranberry sauce for each guest. It looks so cute on the table.
I am a real food lady. I love to look at it, talk about it, eat it, and cook it. I have three turkeys in my freezer right now and there is nothing better for me. It’s like having money in the bank.
Turkey Meat, Thanksgiving Dinner
EbeneMagazine – CA – I’m a Butterball Turkey Hotline Expert who has been answering wild, funny, panicked calls from chefs for 18 years. This year people need us more than ever.
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