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Phyllis Kramer (above, left) with Alice Coffrey, who have been working the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line for a collective 42 years, check the temperature of a turkey in the company's test kitchen in Naperville, Illinois. Ms Kramer (right) working the lines with customers. She says she never criticises callers' techniques because there is no wrong way when it comes to family tradition.

Operators brace for bird calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline

Nov 29, 2019 5:50 AM

Naperville, Illinois

THE Internet should have killed the Butterball Turkey Talkline years ago, but all the Google searches, YouTube videos and turkey tweets in the world can't match the small-bore magic that happens on the fifth floor of a suburban office building 34 miles southwest of Chicago.

Each year from Nov 1 till Christmas Eve, 50 Butterball experts ease more than 100,000 nervous cooks through their Thanksgiving meal, either over the phone or, more recently, through text, email or live chat sessions.

The talk line started 38 years ago as a marketing gimmick and has grown into a seasonal slice of Americana as sturdy and reassuring as a Midwestern grandmother with a degree in home economics, which many of the experts are.

"People can be just paralysed with fear," said Phyllis Kramer, who first took the seasonal job 17 years ago after retiring as a home economist. "All they usually need is someone who takes the time to be personal and sympathetic." Ms Kramer embraces the talk-line ethos, which requires a cheery, solution-oriented and nonjudgmental demeanour. But who doesn't love a good kitchen disaster story? It doesn't take much to coax the experts into spilling some tea on America's turkey illiteracy.

Their version of comedy gold often centres on thawing, the most common topic among callers. People ask if they can thaw a turkey in the dishwasher, under an electric blanket or in the backyard pool. One man threw a wrapped turkey in the bath water with his two children.

Here's a classic: A man called in, worried about whether his bird would thaw in time. "What state is your turkey in?" the expert asked, trying to do a little culinary detective work. "Florida," he answered.

Then there was the woman who wanted to know if she could check the turkey temperature with a fever thermometer, another who used dish soap to wash the turkey and the newlywed who called from a closet, fearful that her mother-in-law would discover she didn't know how to roast a turkey.

Ms Kramer's favourite call came five years ago, when a group she suspects was fuelled by a few holiday cocktails complained that the 21-pound turkey they had just pulled from the oven had barely any meat. She was puzzled but then had a moment of what she called divine inspiration. "Turn the turkey over," she suggested. They had cooked it breast-side down. "The Internet isn't going to tell them that," Ms Kramer said.

The Butterball talkline is one of the great marketing ideas of modern American consumerism, right up there with using a national baking contest to promote Pillsbury flour or Clydesdales to sell Budweiser.

It was born in 1981, when Pam Talbot, an executive of the Chicago public relations firm founded by feisty former journalist Daniel J Edelman, pitched the idea as a way to help deal with what she tagged "turkey trauma".

The first year, six women fielded 11,000 calls on a toll-free line - no small thing in an age before unlimited calling plans and mobile phones. Their reference material was contained in small binders.

Today, the experts, all of whom possess some kind of culinary or nutritional background, have an elaborate database of turkey tips and recipes at their fingertips, with links at the ready to send out via text and social media. Last year, Butterball loaded answers spoken in the experts' voices into Amazon's Alexa voice assistant.

They do their best to keep up with the trends. Last year, there were a lot of questions about Instant Pots and sous vide. This year, spatchcocking and air frying are popular. And always, there are questions about deep-frying.

Still, the people in headsets remain steadfast in the belief that the company's preferred method is best: Coat the turkey with oil or cooking spray. Use a shallow roasting pan with a rack, a bed of aromatic vegetables or, in a pinch, a coil of foil.

The Edelman company still helps coordinate the talk line, which has so embedded itself in popular culture that it's name-checked regularly on talk shows and once worked its way into the fictional Oval Office on The West Wing. "It's the most brilliant piece of branding," said Joanna Saltz, editorial director of Delish and House Beautiful. "In the day and age of automated everything, getting a live human on the phone on the most culinarily challenging day of the year? It's so genius. It's like calling the police."

The call traffic starts picking up in earnest the Thursday before Thanksgiving, which Butterball calls National Thaw Day. Go time is Thanksgiving itself. The action starts as soon as the line opens at 6am and doesn't stop until it closes 12 hours later.

They pull down extra pay that day, although everyone from the supervisors down to the people working in the back row of the call centre are tight-lipped about how much they make. But they cheerfully point out that everyone also gets a free turkey.

To keep their voices from going hoarse on Thanksgiving Day, the experts rely on soup, mints and plenty of water. They'll field more than 10,000 calls. (That's a mere drop in the gravy boat compared with the estimated 40 million turkeys that will be cooked on Thanksgiving.)

The concept is so enduring that competitors like Jennie-O Turkey Store and food media organisations have adopted it. The Splendid Table host Francis Lam will preside over a panel of cooks who will take calls live for a few hours on Thanksgiving Day.

Culturally, the Butterball talkline is as white as a turkey breast. The help it offers - based on hundreds of tests on Butterball products - is safe, reliable and seasoned with not much more than salt and pepper.

Many of the experts have developed long-standing friendships. They have worked together for decades, watching babies grow up and mourning the passing of family members. In the off-season, some meet up for dinner or weekend trips.

It's the kind of bond that can be formed only when the calls are stacking up like dirty dinner plates and a cook's emotional state on the nation's premier food holiday is precarious.

Almost all of the experts have that one deeply meaningful call. It came for Bill Nolan in 2016. He's a chef and retired culinary educator. Mr Nolan picked up a call from a widowed man the day before Thanksgiving. "He said his wife was gone, but he wanted to make that first Thanksgiving meal without her for his family," Mr Nolan said.

Tears came to his eyes as he told the rest of the story. Although the average call is about three minutes, he spent almost a half-hour with the man, coaching him through a simple Thanksgiving meal. He said: "I mean, here was this guy in a house by himself who called us to help. We don't cure cancer, and we don't save lives, but maybe that guy had a good meal." NYTIMES

Traffic on the Turkey Talkline on Thanksgiving Day 2018

Calls: 11,265

Texts: 3,758

Live chats: 1,002

Emails: 371

Average call length: 3 minutes, 9 seconds

Average hold time: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line: 800-288-8372, text 844-877-3456, email Severson