NAPERVILLE, IL — This could be the year perplexed cooks gobble up their cell phone data plans asking the experts staffing Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line how to cook a Thanksgiving meal that isn’t a disaster.
Cooking a turkey actually isn’t that hard.
Still, the angst associated with tackling a turkey for the first time can turn Thanksgiving into a traumatic experience. The pressure on these cooks is enormous. Turkeys, a uniquely North American bird, have graced Thanksgiving tables since President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday in 1863.
In any case, the 50 experts taking questions are ready with answers. In a typical year, they have about 100,000 interactions with cooks, many of whom are frantic their turkeys will be a flop.
The coronavirus pandemic could make that call volume look like a slow season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking Americans to stay home this Thanksgiving and limit gatherings to people who live under the same roof. That’s making for a busy few days for Tara-Rose Groberski and the other Turkey Talk-Line experts.
“We know this year that we’ll have more first-time cooks at smaller gatherings,” Groberski tells Patch, citing Butterball’s research that 1 in 3 first-time turkey cooks plan to reach out to the Turkey Talk-Line experts for advice.
Whether the call involves something strange — such as the poor fellow who decided to thaw his turkey outside, only to have it poached by a hungry animal — or a routine question, “calm down” is the first bit of advice Groberski offers.
This year, she and the other experts may be dishing out even more comfort and joy during calls on how to avoid turkey fails.
As the number of first-time turkey cooks increases because of coronavirus restrictions on families, so does the number of parents and grandparents who will be separated from their families.
They may just want to connect with another human being. Butterball is just fine with that.
“Butterball experts are a friendly group, and we’re interested in helping folks out there,” Groberski says. “We’re very conversational, and it’s not just telling people directions. We want people to feel comfortable in their conversations with us, especially if they don’t have another resource.”
Overall, though, these turkey experts will be flipping through queries about the bird.
They’ll answer questions as routine as how long it takes to thaw the turkey (it depends on the size of the bird and whether it's thawed in the refrigerator or a pan of cold water) and as bizarre as whether it’s OK to accelerate the defrosting by tossing the turkey in the family hot tub (it isn’t; the water isn’t hot enough to cook the turkey but is warm enough to promote bacteria growth).
Other questions deal with how to stuff the turkey, how to spatchcock a turkey, and advice on cooking methods from roasting to air frying to deep frying to smoking to grilling — you get the idea: There’s no single way to prepare the 21st century Thanksgiving turkey.
“But every year, we get the unpredictable,” Groberski says, explaining scenarios ranging from power outages occurring at the most inopportune time or a turkey that’s done too soon or not soon enough, to guests who bail at the last minute and stick the hosts with a 22-pound bird — and a lot of questions about leftovers.
Occasionally, the calls are borderline bizarre.
A Turkey Talk-Line expert shared details with Esquire a few years ago about a call from a frantic mom whose kids took literally the idea of stuffing a turkey and filled the bird’s cavity with their Matchbox cars, as if it were a garage.
The advice: toss the stuffing, devour the turkey.
Similarly, the expert told the magazine, don’t roast an engagement ring with the bird.
And then there was the woman from Colorado who figured it would be OK to store her turkey outdoors because it was below 40 degrees outside. She hadn’t counted on a 10-inch snowstorm. She forgot all about her turkey and called to say she couldn’t find it, according to Butterball’s website.
Anything resulting in an imperfect turkey might be considered an emergency, but expert Diane Jimenez prevented a life-threatening situation when a man who called the Talk-Line informed her his turkey was on fire.
“Sir,” she said, “I think you should call your local fire department."
Often, the turkey experts get a real slice of human emotion.
Talk-Line expert Alice Coffey remembered a call from a man whose wife had recently died. He was making a turkey for the first time and had a barrage of questions.
“They had a convection oven, and he had never used it,” Coffey recalled on the Butterball website. “I walked him through the steps, like finding the pan that she used, as well as some very basic cooking steps. He was very appreciative. He said his kids were going to be so proud that he kept up this tradition of the Thanksgiving meal for them.”
Since Butterball opened its phone lines in 1981, the call volume has increased annually, even as sites offering turkey cooking advice have become ubiquitous on the internet.
Butterball offers several ways for people to connect now through Dec. 24, with extended hours the week of Thanksgiving, among them:
Call 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372).
Say, “Alexa, ask Butterball” to enable the Butterball Skill for Amazon Alexa, and once it’s enabled, ask away. Or ask how-to videos on compatible Alexa-enabled devices.
Company spokesperson Alina Blackford says the in-person calls have always been at the heart of Butterball’s success, though.
“My personal favorite, also the heart of the Talk-Line, is the phones,” she says in an email to Patch. “There is something to be said about that human connection we experience when talking to our cooks over the phones. We also enjoy talking about fun ways to celebrate virtual get-togethers for those unable to see family and friends.”
The 50 experts usually gather in a building in Naperville, Illinois, in a building painted in Butterball yellow and blue, but they’re working from their homes this year. The pandemic has blown the stuffing out of another tradition, too: Butterball won’t be able to trot out celebrity experts such as Stephen Colbert (2018) and Freddie Prinze Jr. (2019).
Butterball conducted extensive research to get a sense of how Thanksgiving looks in the time of the coronavirus. A survey of 1,004 adults from across the country in September found:
Nearly 90 percent said they would make the Thanksgiving meal happen, even if the celebration looks different.
More than 75 percent said they’d make Thanksgiving easier and simpler.
One-third of consumers were considering outdoor Thanksgiving celebrations to accommodate social distancing.
Seventeen percent said they have become better cooks during the coronavirus quarantines and feel more confident about cooking Thanksgiving dinner.