While the experts at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line suggest defrosting a Thanksgiving turkey in a cold-water bath, they weren’t prepared for the father who was double-dipping by bathing his twin babies and thawing the turkey in the same bath. That was wrong on all sorts of levels, but especially since the water should be cold and thawing requires 24 hours for every four-pounds of meat.
But even that is better than other thawing methods callers have shared, such as wrapping the turkey in an electric blanket, running it through the dishwasher or tossing it in the jacuzzi.
Which goes to show why a hot-line is so needed, especially now when families can’t easily gather due to COVID-19 and therefore more first-time cooks are preparing the celebratory meal.
Around 51 culinary experts traditionally gather in October and November to help consumers in the U.S. and Canada prepare their Thanksgiving feasts with no glitches. This year is the first time in its 39-year history, that the experts will be handling the thousands of calls remotely. And it’s not just calls anymore, it’s texts, Facebook and website inquiries and photos. There’s also a feature where callers can leave their number for a call-back. They’ve had people call when the turkey’s in the oven and from the grocery store line while still trying to decide on side dishes.
Nicole Johnson, who heads up the call-room, admits her crew is basically “turkey counselors,” culinary experts with an extra helping of empathy and calming techniques.
The original six help-line counselors were home ec majors with a Rolodex filled with answers. Next came a 5-inch-thick binder, which transitioned into online resources. Men joined the ranks about seven years ago, she says, and experience ranges from home economic teachers to food scientists, chefs and other types of foodies.
The average tenure of a talk-line employee is 17 years. Johnson started the seasonal job right out of grad school. She even postponed her honeymoon, so she could man the phones. And because she’s always working on Thanksgiving day, her husband is the one who is slaving over the hot stove at home preparing the meal. To her knowledge, he’s never called the hotline, however, her 15-year-old son once texted to say “hi.”
The average length of a call is three to four minutes, but “you know it’s going to be a long call when they say, ‘this is my first Thanksgiving.’ We go through everything,” she says. Rarely does a caller stump them, Johnson says, and when it does happen, there are five supervisors to help sort it all out.
Questions range from the expected—how do I know when the turkey’s done (meat thermometers)—to the unexpected, such as one asked by a college student who was hosting Thanksgiving at her apartment for a group of friends. “They were fans of turkey breasts in the Crock-Pot, so they were going to have six Crock-Pots cooking in the same apartment. She had a recipe, a thermometer…,” Johnson says, but wanted to know whether they were going to blow a fuse.
The phone lines opened October 3 to accommodate Canadians whose Thanksgiving is earlier. The questions are pretty much the same, she says, with the exception of having to convert to the metric system. Canadians also have a unique product we don’t have in the U.S., a frozen, stuffed turkey that can go from freezer to oven, Johnson says.
The dedicated saviors of Thanksgiving meals will standby until December 1. Just in case consumers want to ask how to get the gravy stains off the tablecloth or relatives to go home.