7 Things I Learned at Butterball University
Since 1981, nearly 50 million men and women have called one number seeking holiday help: 1-800-BUTTERBALL.
The Turkey Talk-Line, based in an office complex outside of Chicago in Naperville, launched in 1981 with six women answering phones and has grown to become a national icon, making cameo appearances on shows such as The West Wing and Modern Family.
Today, the hotline, which operates November 2 through December 24, is staffed by more than 50 operators, who also take questions via e-mail and social media. "Freshman" operators get training for the season at the day-long Butterball University, led by five hotline supervisors. This year, I was invited to peek in on the poultry academy as four soon-to-be hotline operators practiced preparing turkey a variety of different ways, learned about food safety, watched Butterball Master Chef Tony Seta expertly carve a bird and were drilled on questions that have come through the lines in the past.
Here's what I learned.
1) Turkey Talk-Line operators grimace, just like the rest of us, when they pull out the turkey necks and giblet packs from the inside of the bird (that giblet pack, by the way, contains the heart, liver and gizzard of a turkey, and they're likely not from the bird you're cooking).
2) You can microwave a turkey. And it's actually not bad! (It tastes like chicken that's been brined). It takes 4 minutes per pound on high, and the key is to brush on a sauce that turns it golden, like it would in the oven. (Butterball U created a sauce with ¼ cup melted butter, ¼ teaspoon paprika, 1/8 teaspoon Kitchen Bouquet .)
3) The hotline doesn't just dole out information. It also collects it. A record is made of every call, and that information keeps the Butterball insiders up on consumers' interests and challenges, plus trends.
4) Not all cookbooks are to be trusted when it comes to turkey timing. If you're relying on your grandmother's turkey recipe, and you're consulting the time tables in a cookbook that doubles as a family heirloom, you should call the hotline. Experts say that today's turkeys are younger and more tender than those used by previous generations, so cooking times have changed.
5) They don't just do it out of love for turkey. The enthusiastic operators I met say the Turkey Talk-Line role allows them to play mediator between husband and wife or mother and mother-in-law. Often, the calls are made on speakerphone from the middle of a bustling kitchen on Thanksgiving Day. In those moments, the operators say they feel as though they've been welcomed into a home as part of Thanksgiving celebrations across the country.
6) The most important tenet of Thanksgiving cooking is the three Ts: Thaw (start early! It takes 24 hours for every four pounds). Thermometer (make sure you have one that works; if you're a guest, it never hurts to bring one along, just in case). Tent (you're aiming for three different temperatures for a finished turkey: thighs should be 175° to 180°, breasts 165° to 170°, stuffing 165°). When the turkey is two-thirds done, shield the breast with foil so it doesn't overcook as the rest of the bird reaches doneness.
7) Oh, the stories they tell. Although many of the callers' questions are the same ("How long should I thaw it?" "How many pounds should I buy?" "Where are my giblets?"), every hotline worker has his or her own "best of" collection of stories. Some standouts:
• A family was living in an extended-stay hotel after their house burned down. They lost everything, but the mom refused to give up a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. The challenge: She didn't have an oven. A turkey hotline operator talked her through the process of microwaving a turkey.
• A newlywed called, whispering, from a closet in her own house. Her mother and mother-in-law were arguing over whether or not the turkey was done. The expert talked her through it.
• A man wanted to place a ring inside the turkey and propose to his girlfriend. The operator advised him not to put the ring inside the turkey.
• A woman put the turkey outside to defrost, only to have it snow overnight. When she couldn't find it, she called into the hotline for help.
• People are experimental when it comes to thawing. They've called to say they're defrosting the turkey in the hot tub, the dishwasher and even in the bathtub-while bathing the twins.
• And then there are the stories of the operators, themselves, who all eat soup on Thanksgiving to fend off hoarseness as they take call after call during their shift, then go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families.
Want to talk turkey? Call 1-800-Butterball or ask your question on Butterball.com.