A Chat With a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Operator

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

You'd think that with all the expert advice floating around on food blogs, Web chats and turkey text messaging, the operators at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line (1-800-Butterball) might not be fielding the number of calls they once did.

You'd be wrong.

A staff of six opened the Illinois-based Turkey Talk-Line in November 1981, taking 11,000 calls that season. This year, a 55-member staff plus three online bloggers will answer 12,000 calls per day in either English or Spanish during Thanksgiving week.

The operators of 2008 are a loyal crew, with an average tenure of 10 years; most have home economics degrees, and some are registered dietitians. Before crunch time, every one of them had to "re-up" by taking a two-day Butterball University course that included a take-home turkey test. Grilling experience has become a key asset.

Last week, assistant Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick spoke with Marty Van Ness, a Naperville, Ill., resident who describes her age as "mature" and has been an unfailingly cheerful presence on the line for 15 years. Excerpts follow:

Are people getting smarter or dumber about turkey?

Much smarter. The word is out. But 95 percent of the questions are still related to the bird.

Who is calling -- new cooks? Young or old?

We get all ages. I will take calls from kids in college: Roommates get us on speaker phone with a situation. We also have women who have cooked for a long time. Just today, someone who said she was 70 called because she had never cooked a big, 19-pound turkey before.

What is the most common screw-up?

"The turkey isn't done." We hear that on Thanksgiving morning or afternoon, four hours after the bird has been in the oven. So we investigate.

And the solution?

Every time you cover the turkey with foil you slow down the cooking, so you want to leave it uncovered. Crank up the heat. If the turkey is not getting done, you can take it out and cut it up. Your guests could start eating the breast meat if its temperature registers 170 degrees, while you put the drumsticks and thighs back in until they hit 180. Or you could even microwave them.

What keeps you coming back?

Thanksgiving is our day! People are nervous, and we calm them. They call us back to thank us. It's very rewarding.

Who's cooking at your house on Thursday?

My husband has the turkey thing down pat. (He'll be 63 this month.) My shift ends at 6 p.m. I come home and take a little nap. He does a sweet potato casserole and a family Jell-O thing. But the gravy's my job.

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