A Butterball Turkey Talk-Line expert on Thanksgiving disasters and redemption

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There are a lot of ways to screw up a Thanksgiving turkey. One of the more original ones is having your dearly beloved almost choke on an engagement ring.

“One of our turkey experts received a call from someone who had hidden an engagement ring in the stuffing, and then he couldn’t find it,” says Barbara Robinson. “He called us in a panic. Of course, we came to find out, it had slipped into another cavity.”

Crisis averted. And as a supervisor at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL), that’s what Robinson does every holiday season – prevent crises, provide advice and lend much-needed emotional support. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, she and roughly 50 other culinary experts with headsets and computers operate the company’s call center in Chicagoland. (For non-Midwesterners, that’s Chicago and its suburbs.) They handle more than 100,000 requests for assistance each season, covering everything from properly thawing a turkey (never in the Jacuzzi!) to what to do when your power goes out (head to the grill).

Originally conceived as a PR stunt, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line has now been around for more than four decades. It’s become famous enough it warranted a long scene on “The West Wing,” with President Bartlet asking, “Stuffing should be stuffed inside the turkey, am I correct?” (Butterball expert: “It can also be baked in a casserole dish.”) Robinson herself has been at the job for 16 years, and says it takes a special kind of person to guide addled consumers through these often-stressful holiday celebrations. When you’re roasting a holiday turkey with giblet gravy for the first time, nerves can run high.

“You need to like people to work for the talk line,” Robinson explains. “All of our turkey experts are very personable and compassionate and caring…. I’ve heard that we’re the Cooking 911, because we frequently find that when the consumer calls us, they could actually be at the end of their rope.”

How so? Well, Robinson recently took the time to go over some of her more memorable calls, as well as provide advice for successful holiday meals:

Q: You ever deal with fires?

A: Just a couple of years ago, we received a call from a young man. He was meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and he was making a turkey for Thanksgiving. And instead of pressing the oven Bake button, he pressed the oven Clean button. So his oven locked shut. He could not get it open, and that is like 500 degrees. His turkey was burning, and there was smoke coming out. He called the Butterball Turkey Talk line. We, of course, told him to hang up and call 911.

But the real answer is, if he unplugged his oven, he could then open his door. We told him that, too.

Q: What are some of the ways not to thaw a turkey?

A: We have a lot of “creative callers,” as I like to call them. They want to put it in the bathtub with the kids. We all want to multitask! But that’s a method we don’t recommend. On the counter is another method we do not recommend. Sitting at room temperature, the outside of the skin can get bacteria on it. We always recommend you leave it in the original wrapper and thaw it in the refrigerator, or we do have our cold-water thaw method.

We do not recommend the clothes dryer or a dishwasher…. I actually received a call like that, where the caller said, “I’m sure that’s one of the methods.” I said, “Oh, no. That is not one of the methods that Butterball recommends.” And at that point she turned her head from the phone and started screaming to someone, “She said take it out!”

Q: What other weird calls do you commonly get?

A: We have people who will place their turkeys in a snowbank, because in the northern states it gets pretty cold and snowy this time of year. And then they can’t find their turkey in the snowbank. We’ll get calls about that, but unfortunately we really can’t help …

Then one year, there was a trend where college students were telling their mothers (as a prank) that they were going to cook their Thanksgiving turkeys in the microwave. We got a lot of frantic calls from the moms, who were very concerned about this. And just as an aside: It certainly is possible as long as your turkey is under 12 pounds … It’s a complex method, because you have to turn it over and use different power levels. But it actually produces a great turkey.

Q: Has anybody ever tried to cook a turkey they’ve had frozen since the Reagan administration?

A: We often have callers who say, “I didn’t know I had a turkey in the bottom in my deep freeze.” And we are able to determine how old that turkey is. We say that with two full years for a frozen turkey, the quality will be fine. If you have a turkey older than that, the turkey will be fine from a food-safety aspect, but in terms of quality – your electricity may have gone out, or you might have tears in outer packaging, and that would be a concern…. You might want to use that turkey to make soup or a casserole versus the center of your show, that Ta-Da! moment.

Q: Say a cook turns their back, and a pet attacks the turkey?

A: I’ve heard that through the years. Certainly, you’d have to cut away the area where your dog had gotten to it. But that would have to be a personal decision about using that turkey. I don’t think your guests would be very pleased, if you were using a turkey that had been nibbled by the family dog.

Q: What if there’s a storm and the power goes out?

A: That happens almost every year, unfortunately. One year, there was a hurricane on the East Coast and the phones went wild with people calling to say, “What do I do to cook my turkey?” You can always cook your turkey on the grill. Sometimes you need to find a family or friend who still has electricity.

Q: You have any advice for stuffing?

A: If you have anything such as eggs or sausage or oyster in your stuffing, you need to cook them before you stuff your bird. You don’t want to put any raw ingredients in your turkey.

Q: Is a turkey ruined if you accidentally cook it with the giblet bag inside?

A: If you followed all the directions and cooked the turkey to proper temperature – 170 degrees in the breast area and 180 degrees in the thigh – you would probably be OK. But we do recommend that you remove them.

Q: Do you ever get calls from people who want to talk about things other than food?

A: Last year, we received a letter from an elderly gentleman’s daughter-in-law that said, “My dad has been calling the Turkey Talk-Line for 25 years. And this year he’s unable to.” I’m going to get choked up telling you this. She said, “Would it be possible for the Talk-Line to call him?” And so I did. Of course, he was not surprised at all. He was so pleased that we called him….

We get a lot of callers who sometimes just need to touch base with another human around the holidays… I think in his later years, this gentleman was just calling to touch base.

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