Turkey hotlines: a holiday tradition

 Holiday Cooking

How do you roast a turkey? Make mashed potatoes? Cranberries? Stuffing? We've got everything right here that you need to know.

Americans will cook approximately 45 million turkeys this Thanksgiving. Why we celebrate by cooking a meal that we never normally prepare is anyone's guess. But there's no doubting that gambling with those big, big birds puts the sport in Thanksgiving. Fiascos are so much part of the day that most large turkey processors, and even government agriculture departments, now routinely run holiday turkey hotlines.

The Butterball Turkey Co. started the first toll-free help line service 20 years ago. In 1981, six home economists answered 11,000 calls. This year, 45 home economists working in a suburban Chicago office will take an estimated 170,000 help calls between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On the big days, panicked calls from the East Coast light up the switchboard by 6 a.m., says Betty Clingman, director of the service.

After 17 years of taking calls, Clingman has heard just about everything that can go wrong with a turkey. Thawing problems are the most common, she says. "One person wanted to thaw a turkey in the [bathroom] sink, dropped it and it fell in the toilet," she says.

(Butterball recommends thawing turkeys breast side up in an unopened wrapper on a tray in the refrigerator. Allow at least one day of thawing for every 4 pounds of turkey. If you need to do it faster, thawing in cold water is a second alternative, but not in the bathroom.)

The sheer size of turkeys presents an entire school of problems. "I did talk with one gentleman whose turkey wouldn't fit in the pan, so he wrapped it in a towel and jumped on it," she says.

Her own son tried to cook his first turkey on a cookie sheet, she says, causing the juices to overflow.

Another caller was amputating the legs of her turkeys before cooking them. That's the way her mother did it, she told Clingman, who quickly deduced that the caller's mother had had a small oven. "Here she'd been doing it thinking that you had to do it, not realizing that her mother did it for a reason," says Clingman.

There is, she stresses, no stupid question. The person who couldn't find the white meat was told to turn the turkey over. The person who cooked it with the wrapping luckily called the hotline before the oven got too hot. People forget to take the giblets out so often, she says, that turkey companies now routinely pack them in safe "boil-in-a-bag" wrappings.

Clingman's favorite call came from a widower whose wife had always cooked the meal and who was intent on laying out a perfect meal for his family. "He called us two or three times," she says. "Then, afterward, he called to say thank you. His family had no idea how much help he got."

"Then," says Clingman, "we get into more of the serious calls, the sad ones when we have to say, 'If that was my turkey I wouldn't eat it.'" That included the turkey from the toilet. A turkey that had been frozen for 31 years, she says, was perfectly edible, though she wondered what the texture would be like.

As the American turkey rush subsides in November, a second one picks up in Canada, where turkey is the traditional Christmas meal. Butterball's help line runs from Nov. 1 right through Christmas. "Most of the people have other jobs," Clingman says, but find the time to work the turkey line too. "You get a good feeling about helping people," she says.

Butterball Turkey Hotline, (800) 288-8372

Empire Kosher Poultry Customer Hot Line, (800) 367-4734

Foster Farms Turkey Helpline,(800) 255-7227

HoneySuckle White Turkey, (800) 810-6325

Land O' Lakes Holiday Bakeline, (800) 782-9606

Libby Consumer Hotline, (800) 854-0374

Reynolds Turkey Tips Line, (800) 745-4000

Shadybrook Farms Dial-a-Chef Holiday Hotline, (888) 723-4468

USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline, (800) 535-4555