Deck Log Entry # 244 Happy Thanksgiving 2023!



In the sixteen years I’ve been doing my Deck Log, I’ve covered quite a bit of Thanksgiving territory.  I explained how Thanksgiving became a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of the same lady who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  I revealed how the turkey became the traditional Thanksgiving dinner fare.  I discussed the involvement of the President of the United States with the holiday, which one was the first to pardon Tom Turkey from the chopping block and which Chief Executive tinkered with the day Thanksgiving would be celebrated.  And I described the events of the first Thanksgiving in North America, in 1621 (though our Canadian friends would beg to differ; and I’ll get to them, eventually).


12299632259?profile=RESIZE_400xI’ve done Turkey Day pieces on parades and television and Norman Rockwell.


But there’s one thing that I haven’t talked about.  I’ve mentioned it, but only in passing.  Likely because it’s something about Thanksgiving that really doesn’t affect me, nor probably most of you reading this.  Now, bear in mind, I’m not a feminist.  I don’t feel any need to get my male-sensitivity ticket punched.  I will never be woke.  But I don’t have to be any of those things to recognise that the ladies out there get the short end of the stick on Thanksgiving Day.


While we fellows are snugly entrenched in our easy chairs, cold beers firmly in hand, watching football or parades, our ladies are spending the day in the kitchen, putting together the holiday feast.  And that’s after spending the previous day in a supermarket jammed with housewives fighting over cans of cranberry sauce or that last package of giblets, not to mention waiting in grocery lines ten carts deep.  Oh, we might wander into the kitchen at halftime to grab another bag of chips and idly check on how things are going, but that’s as far as our interest goes.


Face it, guys---Thanksgiving isn’t nearly as fun for the women of the house.


Fortunately, on the fifth floor of a beige office building in Naperville, Illinois, about thirty miles from Chicago, fifty cooking experts wait to provide these harried housewives the benefit of their knowledge and training.  They’re only a phone call or text away. 


I’m talking about, of course, the Butterball Hotline.


The Butterball Hotline is a tradition, now.  Even a cliché.  To reach that status in our culture, something has to be around forever, or so you’d think.  In fact, the Butterball Hotline has been around for only forty-two years. 


You see, the Butterball Hotline started as a public-relations stunt.  In the fall of 1981, Pam Talbot, an account executive for the P.R. firm Edelman, came up with a sales strategy for one of her clients, Butterball.  She proposed publicising an effort to help housewives through the “turkey trauma” of Thanksgiving Day.  It would earn Butterball some good will and, consequently, sell more of its turkeys.


The Butterball people signed off on the idea, and Mrs. Talbot hired six home economists, handed them each a manual containing basic turkey cooking and preparation material, and in November of 1981, set them down at a long desk with six telephones.  The Butterball Hotline---officially, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line---was born.


Butterball radio and print ads encouraged holiday home cooks to call 1-800-BUTTERBALL for advice in preparing the Thanksgiving turkey.  The folks at Butterball figured they’d get five or six hundred calls.  Maybe a thousand, if their advertisements really got out.


At 6 a.m., the first day of November, the lights on all six phones lit up, and kept lighting up, non-stop.  By Thanksgiving Day, the ladies manning the Butterball phones had fielded over eleven thousand calls.


That’s how it began.  Over the next few years, the number of Turkey Talk-Line operators increased from six, to eight, to fifteen, to twenty-five, as the rate of calls rose steadily each holiday season.  What had started as a P.R. stunt had turned into a genuine public service.




To-day, it’s fifty cooking experts who work the phones at Butterball corporate headquarters on Diehl Road in Naperville.  They wear headsets now, to keep their hands free to type on their desktop computers.  The printed material stuffed in small binders has long been replaced by a database of turkey knowledge, with links at the ready to attach to a text message or social media.  Alexa has even gotten into the act.  (“Alexa, open Butterball . . .”)  And they still get phone calls, around ten thousand of them every day, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.


Out of the fifty million consumers the Butterball Hotline has helped since 1981, the most commonly asked question has been “How do I thaw the turkey?”


(The preferred method is in the refrigerator---take the turkey out of the freezer, remove its packaging, place it on a sheet pan, and put it in the refrigerator.  Allow one day of thawing for every four pounds of bird, and that’s how much thawing time is needed before cooking.


As an alternative which takes less time, but is more labour-intensive, the Butterball experts advise the cold-water method.  Place the frozen turkey, front side down, in the kitchen sink or a large cooler, filled with cold water.  Every thirty minutes, change the water and rotate the bird.  Allow thirty minutes of thawing for each pound of turkey.


Once thawed, cook the turkey within four days.)


Other most frequently asked questions include “What size turkey should I get?” and "At what temperature should I cook the turkey?" and “How do I know when the turkey is done?” 




It’s not easy to become one of the women, or men---Butterball started hiring male operators in 2013---who answer the Talk-Line phone.  For one thing, the job is not formally advertised.  You have to know somebody at Butterball to find out if a position is available.  And, then, to be selected, an applicant must have completed at least four years in a food-related programme.  Some of the operators have bachelor’s degrees in home economics or nutrition or public health.  Others are registered dieticians and graduates of culinary schools.


Each year for their first three years on the Butterball Hotline, rookie operators are required to undergo a day-long training seminar called “Butterball University”.  In the Butterball office kitchen, they are familiarised with not just the traditional methods of cooking a turkey, but various other techniques, including grilling, spatchcocking, air frying, microwaving, sous vide, and, no doubt, even Alton Brown’s M.I.T.-worthy deep frying process.


At the start of each season, all of the operators receive advanced training, which updates them on Butterball’s products and provides a refresher course in how to operate the phone and the computer.  This helps avoid a consumer being cut off or message responses being sent to open air.  The computer tracks the number of calls, the average time spent on a response (three minutes), and the types of questions received.  The data helps Butterball refine its procedures and training.


A twelve-hour shift, seven days a week, from 01 November to 24 December, a season when most people are looking forward to spending more time off with their families, you might expect a reasonably rapid turn-over in Talk-Line operators.  Yet, that isn’t the case.  The average tenure for an operator is fifteen years.  A handful of hardy veterans have been there since the 1980’s.  Usually, Butterball only needs to fill one, maybe two, open slots every year.


We all have our work “war stories” we tell our families and friends when we get home.  The Butterball Talk-Line operators get theirs from the callers asking questions that come out of left field.  Bizarre queries like:


Can I baste my turkey in suntan lotion?


Should I remove the plastic wrap before I cook my turkey?


Can I brine my turkey in the washing machine?


I carved my turkey with a chain saw.  Is the grease going to hurt the taste?


I left my bird in a snowbank to thaw, and I can’t find it.  Now, what?


The family dog is stuck in the turkey.  How do I get it out?


Why does my turkey have no breast meat?


That last question was fielded in 2014 by Talk-Line operator Phyllis Kramer, who suspected that the caller and the folks heard in the background had, maybe, sampled a little too much of the liquid holiday cheer.  Mrs. Kramer puzzled over their claim for a minute or two before the answer dawned on her.


“Turn the turkey over,” she suggested.


That was the answer.  The caller had cooked the turkey upside down.




Lastly, to any wives who may be reading this piece over their husbands’ shoulders, we fellows recognise and appreciate all that you do on Thanksgiving more than you might think.  Talk-Line operator Sue Smith once received a Thanksgiving Day call from a ninety-one-year-old man who was completely befuddled in the kitchen.  For sixty years, his wife had always handled the holiday dinner for their large extended family, but she had died earlier that year, and he insisted on taking over the cooking chores.


“My kids could do this,” he told Sue.  “They keep telling me they can do it for me.  But, I want to do it for my wife.”


Sue stayed with him on the phone for almost an hour, talking him through each step of preparation, making sure everything turned out right.  Afterward, he called her back gratefully to let her know their Thanksgiving dinner had been wonderful. 


Thanks to a husband's devotion to his wife and the Butterball Hotline.



* * * * * 


From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them!



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  • For many years, I've handled cooking the turkey at Thanksgiving, and I have prepared it in various ways. I have roasted it in the oven, frequently cooked it in a smoker and, at least once, cooked it in the microwave oven. I have brined it, basted it in butter, stuffed it with bread, stuffed it with fruit, not stuffed it, and so on. I don't have a deep-fryer, nor do I want to undertake the risk of burning my house down. My brother-in-law has done it safely, however.

    I have made the mistake, more than once, of buying a frozen bird too close to T-Day for it to be fully thawed out in time, and have -- more than once -- undertaken the desperate measure of soaking it in a large tub and changing the water every hour or so. I know the experts at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line recommend changing the water every half-hour, but that's too frequent to be practical, especially when you're doing this overnight, which you have to do if you're going to cook the turkey in the morning so it can be ready to eat in the early evening. Of course, I suppose the folks at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line would respond that giving your dinner guests food poisoning would be even less practical, but I took the risk ... more than once.

    Once, however, not long ago, I had to resort to the truly desperate measure of cooking a completely frozen turkey. I believe it was with instructions from the wonderful Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, although I cannot find that recipe on their site today (but I made sure to print it out and save it the day I engaged in the experiment). All went well.

    The key to cooking frozen meats (I have done it before with smaller items) is to understand that it will take longer. So with a fully frozen turkey:

    1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
    2. Remove the plastic wrapping and place the turkey into your roasting pan. If you like to surround your bird with vegetables like carrots, celery, potatoes, turnips, etc. (which I do), put them in.
    3. Cook for about two hours and then -- this is crucial! -- remove the bag of giblets inside the turkey! (You may have to chip away some ice to get to it.)
    4. At this point, go ahead and slather the turkey with butter or cooking oil or spray it with cooking spray and sprinkle on your choice of herbs and spices. Being a lifelong Marylander, the only choice is Old Bay Seasoning
    5. Put the roasting pan back into the oven and continue cooking for another three or four hours, until your turkey is done.

    This method does not allow for stuffing the turkey, but modern food science says you shouldn't be doing that anyway, as giving your dinner guests food poisoning is not appealing. But if you want to take the risk, you should have thawed out your turkey sooner.

    For what it's worth, Slate says cooking a turkey that's still frozen is a wonderful idea, "Not only is this so much easier, from unwrapping onward, it is—you are not hallucinating—perfectly safe and USDA-approved. And your guests never have to know," Slate tells us.

    This year, however, I don't have to deal with any of that; just like last year, my son has invited my wife and me to his home for Thanksgiving, and he and his adorable girlfriend will share the cooking duties. I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and it will be extra special to celebrate it with the three people closest to my heart.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

    Shocking video shows what can go wrong when deep fat frying a turkey
    The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning Americans to "cook the turkey, not your home" this Thanksgiving.
  • Really enjoyed this one, Commander. I had to share it with my wife who has prepared many a Thanksgiving dinner. This year one of our daughters has the honors. I will share the anecdotes with her as well.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  • Terrific story as always, Commander! I will be assisting in the kitchen, but it is definitely the women doing the heavy lifting.

  • A very happy Thanksgiving and holiday season to you, Commander! Best wishes from the Silver Age Fogey! x<]:o){

  • I worked at TWA's "Special Services" desk for about two years back in the '90s. We handled things such as oxygen requests, stretchers, air marshal bookings, pets, kosher meals, etc. One of the strangest requests I recieved was from a passenger who would be attending a wedding in New York City in August and wanted to know what shoes to wear to the ceremony.

    For many years decades ago, our family spoke of stuffing a turkey with White Castle hamburgers. I don't know if we ever actually did, or if we just talked about it so much that's the way i remember it. I'm pretty sure we did one year when my dad hooked up his sister's oven in our basement after they got a new one and my brother-in-law brought a wild turkey he shot. I definitelty remember biting down on buckshot and am pretty sure that's the one we stuffed with ground up White Castle hamburgers. 

  • As a vegetarian, cooking turkey has never been a problem for me, but man, those were some funny questions.

    I remember an article some years back about Ocean Spray's cranberry hotline where the questions run along the line of "Can I cook the sauce in the can?" and "do you have my grandmother's recipe?"

    A good read, as always, Commander.

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