These women love to talk turkey

Staff WriterNovember 17, 2010 

  • The ladies of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line are there from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and the weekends before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Call 1-800-BUTTERBA (800-288-8372); send an e-mail to talkline@butterball.com; or get help via Facebook, www.facebook.com/Butterball, or Twitter, by following @butterball

I could have benefited from a call to Butterball's Turkey Talk-Line last week while preparing today's Thanksgiving feast for a photo shoot.

I planned to serve the meal to friends that evening. But I panicked, thinking a 14-pound turkey couldn't possibly feed 10 people, so I bought a 5-pound chicken to roast as well. If I had called the hotline, I would have learned that a 10-pound bird was plenty. If I wanted leftovers, I should have figured on 1 1/2 pounds per person.

Thirty years ago, when Butterball started the Turkey Talk-Line, the company wasn't sure people would call a 1-800 number - a new thing back then - for Thanksgiving cooking advice. They wondered whether the six home economists should be available to take calls on Thanksgiving Day.

Today, the call center, based outside Chicago, is staffed with 52 food safety and cooking experts who cheerfully answer questions for hours on end from more than 100,000 callers between the first Monday in November and Christmas. (It's that true Midwestern friendliness at work.) The peak is Thanksgiving Day and the day before, when they receive about 20,000 calls.

"At one time, you got your help from Grandma and a good cookbook. Now, you can call us," says Mary Clingman, a 25-year Turkey Talk-Line veteran who is the call center's director. "We can spend anywhere between two minutes to an hour with you."

Those staffing the phones all have food-related degrees from nutrition to home economics, Clingman says. They attend Butterball University, and all are required to prepare a turkey using a method they haven't tried before so they can answer questions about it. They have seen the trends in turkey cookery from microwaving and deep-frying to using a convection oven

The most often asked question, Clingman says, is how to thaw a turkey safely. They now tell people to start thawing their turkeys a week before, and even call the Thursday before Thanksgiving "National Thaw Day." Once the turkey is thawed, you have four days to cook it.

Of course, the closer it gets to Thanksgiving, the weirder and more complex the questions become. Clingman and her co-workers have fielded calls from a man whose turkey caught fire and a woman who left her turkey outside and then lost it in a snowstorm.

One of Clingman's favorite callers was a widower from Atlanta whose five children were coming to dinner.

"He was bound and determined to show he was just doing fine and he could pull this off. He called us at least three or four times," she says. "What was nice about that, he called us back afterward and said, 'It worked. They had no idea.'"

For Clingman, her favorite moment at the call center comes on Thanksgiving Day: "Later in the afternoon, I'll just sit down when I have a moment to breathe and just listen around the room. These ladies have been talking on the phone for hours to people, and they are as sweet and kind to the last person of the day as they are to the first person of the day."

Isn't it reassuring to know that if a moment of panic should strike you on this high-pressure day of cooking, a kind voice is there if you need it? That's one more thing to be thankful for on this holiday.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848.

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