NAPERVILLE, Ill. — The internet should have killed the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line years ago, but all the Google searches, YouTube videos and turkey tweets in the world can’t match the small-bore magic that happens here on the fifth floor of a suburban office building 34 miles southwest of Chicago.
Each year from Nov. 1 through 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 paralyzed 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.”
Kramer embraces the talk-line ethos, which requires a cheery, solution-oriented and nonjudgmental demeanor. 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 centers 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.
Kramer’s favorite call came five years ago, when a group she suspects was fueled 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,” Kramer said.
The Butterball talk line 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.
Tips on frying a turkey
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. Cook at 325 degrees. A 10- to 18-pound turkey will take three to 3 1/2 hours if you don’t open the oven to baste it, which isn’t necessary anyway. The thigh should reach 180 degrees and the breast 170 degrees, which you achieve by placing a foil tent over the breast in the last half-hour.
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.”
Evan Kleiman, the former Los Angeles restaurateur who answers Thanksgiving questions during her prerecorded radio show, “Good Food,” is a steadfast fan. “It’s some woman talking you off the ledge,” she said. “Don’t you wish there was one for everything else?”
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 6 a.m. and doesn’t stop until it closes 12 hours later. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Traffic on the Turkey Talk-Line on Thanksgiving Day 2018
Live chats: 1,002
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 butterball.com/contact-us.
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