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Barbra Robinson, left, looks over instructions as she wraps a turkey in foil under the watch of supervisor Alice Coffey during training for Butterball Turkey Talk-Line employees in 2010 in Naperville, Ill. Butterball expects to answer the questions of 1 million cooks this holiday season.
We all want to experience a perfect Thanksgiving feast, but in the pressure-packed, family-filled run-up to the big day, there is at least one multitasking method you should NOT try at home.
That would be the approach attempted by a man who called the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line for some advice while tackling another pre-holiday chore.
“He had a list that was given to him from his wife and among it was to thaw the turkey and to bathe the children,” talk-line expert Nicole Johnson said. “He decided he was going to put the twins in the bathtub alongside the turkey. He was thawing them all out together.
“At first I thought he was kidding but he wasn’t,” she added, recalling the sound of little ones splashing in the background. So, Johnson gamely steered their conversation toward food safety and the best ways to thaw a bird: in the refrigerator, or by immersing it in cold water.
Butterball Turkey Talk-Line employees are trained to talk first-time cooks and other nervous callers off the ledge.
“I told him what we mean by a cold-water bath is in a kitchen sink or laundry-room sink,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Butterball started its Turkey Talk-Line in 1981. The company is expecting to assist 1 million inquisitive cooks this November and December through the talk-line (1-800-BUTTERBALL) and via Facebook, Twitter, live-chats, emails and its website.
At the talk-line, 57 holiday-meal experts will field all sorts of questions from callers, many with nervousness or desperation in their voices as they strive to attain perfection for Thanksgiving Day and its golden bird. Sometimes the anxiety manifests itself through heavy breathing.
“It’s just absolute panic,” Johnson said of some callers. “But we can talk them through anything. There’s really nothing that can’t be solved.”
Hiding from family in a pantry
Johnson, a talk-line expert since 2001, said she appreciates the challenge of trying to talk first-time cooks off the ledge.
“I love the phone call when it starts out, ‘I’ve never cooked a turkey. Help!’” said Johnson, 35, of Chicago. “That’s my opportunity to go wild.”
Over the years, Johnson has encountered some pretty creative techniques and challenges. For instance, Bath Dad was not the only one to discuss an unconventional thawing technique.
“A lot of people want to do countertop thawing, but it’s not a safe method,” Johnson said. “People will sort of come up with their own creative methods, like using an electric blanket. We’ve heard Jacuzzi.”
Checking the temperature of a turkey flusters many of the novice cooks who call Butterball's helpline.
Some of the most anxious calls come from stressed-out first-time cooks, newlyweds looking to put their stamp on the holiday, or men making a maiden voyage into the kitchen.
One woman became flustered when Johnson advised her to check for doneness by inserting her meat thermometer in three places. “Her whole tone changed,” Johnson recalled. “She said, ‘Well now I have to run back to the store and buy three meat thermometers.’”
Another woman who was newly married also needed advice on determining when her bird was cooked. The problem was that Johnson could barely hear her because she was hiding from her new family.
“She had her in-laws in the dining room and she was in a walk-in pantry,” Johnson said. “She wanted to impress her mother-in-law.”
The male callers have included a fireman put in charge of cooking the station house dinner for the first time, and a dad whose wife had just given birth on Thanksgiving. The hospital ran out of turkey, so he wanted to make one for her at home.
The calls that really give Johnson goose bumps come from men whose wives have died.
“A lot of times it’s the grandpa calling,” she said. “He wants to carry on the tradition for his kids and grandkids and we’re walking him through it. That’s always a good one and one that I spend even more time with."
Even though they're often hoarse by the time they get off work, most Butterball Turkey Talk-Line employees love helping people in an hour of need.
‘I told you so’
When Johnson hears that she is on speaker phone, it is often a sign of marital discord — and she can tell she’s being asked to referee. “I think, ‘Oh, boy, here we go,’” Johnson said. “We’re the counselor between the husband and wife. We get that a lot.”
And if you’re one of those couples who does that, make sure you’ve really hung up the phone before you gloat to your spouse. Often, Johnson will hear, “See, I told you so!”
Callers have asked Johnson to hold on the line while they give her tips a try. One man needed help with lumpy gravy. Johnson, who has a graduate degree in nutrition and dietetics, suggested a solution she learned from her mom: Try putting the gravy through the blender.
With the whir of the blender, her caller was satisfied.
For Johnson, who is at home with her four young children during the year and works for Butterball every holiday season, hearing happiness in her callers’ voice is the best part of the job.
“After we leave our eight-hour shift, are we exhausted? Yes,” Johnson said. “Our voices are almost hoarse. But you go home feeling like you are on top of the world. You’ve done so much good for the callers. It’s really a rewarding job.”
Anyone in the United States or Canada can call the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL), regardless of which brand of turkey is giving them fits. Bilingual assistance is available in English and Spanish.