Santa’s workshop has its elves, and for 39 years now, Thanksgiving has had its own worker bees, the experts at Butterball’s Turkey Talk Line, who set up shop every holiday season to field food-prep questions from worried home cooks the country over. But this Thanksgiving isn’t going to be like any other Thanksgiving in memory. The pandemic means vastly fewer trips to Mom or Grandma’s house, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of inexperienced chefs will be forced to fend for themselves. If ever there was a moment when America needed a direct line to our foremost turkey authorities, it’s now. Enter Nicole Johnson, the director and a 19-year veteran of the Turkey Talk Line, who agreed to speak to Slate about her unique responsibility and just how all those first-time chefs seem to be doing. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Slate: Where are you taking calls this year?
Nicole Johnson: Historically all 50 experts, including myself, men and women, for the 39-plus years we’ve been open, we’ve all been here at the Naperville, Illinois, office. In the 19 years I’ve been talking turkey, I’ve never worked from home. This year, I am. I was a little nervous at first because my four little butterballs are at home as well, with remote schooling. It’s been a little bit of a juggle, but it’s been great.
What else is different?
We really made sure that our trainings entailed ways to guide and support first-time cooks. We knew they were coming, and I’ve certainly seen a lot of them when I answered the phones, email, chat, and texts. It doesn’t necessarily mean a very young age either. It can be someone my age, in their 40s, or even 60s, and for the first time they’re hosting Thanksgiving. It’s fun to get those first-time cooks because they’re just sponges. And we’re seeing a lot more requests for outdoor gathering, and that is going to be great because we have information for deep-frying, for barbecue grills, whether it’s charcoal or gas.
How did you wind up working at our country’s premier turkey advice line?
We don’t advertise to work on the talk line. We don’t have to, to be quite honest. It’s always a word-of-mouth referral. For my own example, I was finishing up grad school and one of my nutrition and dietetic teachers was a Turkey Talk Line expert herself. I interviewed for the position; that was in 2001. That was during my early 20s. Now I’m in my early 40s. I’m married and have four little kids of my own. A lot of my friends here have seen me come on right out of college and get married and have kids, and now I’m the director of the talk line, which is really neat.
How many calls does the line typically get?
We assist more than 100,000 cooks each year with our turkey cooking advice, with nearly 15,000 inquiries on Thanksgiving Day. We’re open from 6 to 6 on Thanksgiving Day. That’s Central time.
Do you expect it to be even busier this year?
Absolutely I do.
I know the line also takes questions via text, email, and social media. But it being 2020, why no Zoom?
I keep on teasing our PR firm because they come up with a new way to reach us all the time. If it’s not Alexa, it’s texting. We don’t offer that now, but who’s to say what the future is going to hold? I say bring it on. I think that would be a fun way to talk to consumers.
What was training like this year?
So as you could probably guess, we conducted our trainings virtually this year. The supervisors, there’s five of them, we did still have them here in the kitchen. We did of course maintain social distance; the test kitchen is rather large. I went ahead and streamed it through my laptop. We definitely missed the camaraderie. What was nice about our trainings is we used the Teams platform, and so we weren’t able to physically see each other, but we were able to see each other on the screen.
And maybe you got to see into each other’s kitchens for the first time too.
Yeah, we did. I’ve gotten a couple of laughs from some of the team members because I have a very busy household. I have an 8-, 9-, 12-, and 16-year-old. There’s a lot of commotion, never a dull moment. I have a big, giant Goldendoodle 14-month-old, Gigi. The team laughs because they’ll see into my kitchen, and someone’s bouncing a ball, or someone’s working on schoolwork beside me.
On the hotline, cooking knowledge is one thing, but how do you prepare to handle other sorts of issues, whether it’s people calling in because they’re lonely or you can hear family members fighting in the background?
We do get the callers that call us every year. I think it’s sort of that companionship. They’ll say, “I call you guys every year and I just want to run a new recipe by you,” or “This is the new way I’m gonna prepare my turkey.” The phones are the heart of the talk line, and I think they just love hearing that voice on the other end.
Our team, we’ve probably all received a phone call, usually it’s on speaker phone, where maybe it’s a husband and wife or two friends, when there was a lot of Friendsgivings going on. Maybe one person will want to cook it one way and one another, so we’re sort of the turkey mediator for those kinds of situations.
I know that a lot of our own team members, they’re all working Thanksgiving Day. We always have, an eight-, nine-, maybe even a 10-hour shift. So I think we’re in an excellent position to give advice of how to celebrate Thanksgiving in a virtual manner. I’ve always worked the talk line all day from start to finish and for the last 19 years. So my kids, they’re used to it; mom will FaceTime them, and we celebrate that way. So I think we’re the perfect people to give advice on that, because we’ve always worked on Thanksgiving Day.
If a caller mentions that they’re having a 50-person gathering or something else that conflicts with your views of what’s safe, have you guys devised a way to handle that?
We have trained all of our team that if they do receive a question like that, COVID-related questions, that we always recommend they should reference their local and state health guideline professional for the best advice.
I’m going to be on my own this year, and I have no plans to make a turkey as of now. Is it too late? It’s Wednesday night.
We get those questions all the time. So you have a couple of different options. You can purchase a fresh Butterball, and that requires no thawing. It goes straight from your grocer’s refrigerator to your own refrigerator. If you already had a frozen Butterball or maybe even a frozen breast, which is nice for a smaller-size gathering, you can certainly do a quick thaw method. It’s a half-hour per pound. Your 10-pound little Butterball would take five hours in that cold-water bath.
What’s the most like basic questions someone’s ever asked you? Has anyone ever asked you how to turn their oven on? I could see myself being one of those people.
We’ve definitely gotten that before. What I do with first-time cooks is share with them what we call our three Ts: thawing, temperature, two-hour rule. I’ll just reiterate that the proper way to thaw is refrigeration method, 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey meat or the cold-water bath method. Temperature, again—your best friend on Thanksgiving is your meat thermometer: 180 in the thigh, 170 in the breast. And then the last is two-hour rule: That is just to encourage cooks to get that meat sliced off the bone and in the refrigerator within two hours or less of it leaving the oven.
Another stupid question I was thinking about is the company is called Butterball, but you have to add your own butter, right?
Actually, the name Butterball did not derive from butter itself. There’s no butter in the Butterball turkey. It was just a fun way to describe the plumpness, the broadness of the breast of our turkeys. I will get cooks who will call and say, “Nicole, should I add butter to the skin?” We don’t recommend that. It actually will leave some funny brown spots and burn on the outside of the turkey.
If you’ve never done a turkey, it’s the easiest part of Thanksgiving, it really is. The prep work is super minimal. And you know, your best friends are here, right? Ready for your call, email, chat, text. Truly, you can call us. You could even ask for me, and I hope they transfer you through to me. I will help you.
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