For purists, Thanksgiving is all about the art of roasting, smoking or frying the perfect turkey. But not everyone is an expert; we've all had the experience of chewing on dry breast meat, or watching in horror as the host serves up a too pink piece. We also remember the Thanksgiving where we didn't eat until 9 p.m. because someone forgot to thaw the bird. It takes care and planning to make a memorable meal. And sometimes, it takes a little outside help.
That's why every year, thousands of wanna-be Turkey Geniuses turn to the experts for assistance: They dial 1-800-Butterball for friendly guidance from the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line®, which is celebrating its 29th year of helping frazzled cooks. The Talk-Line is staffed by dieticians, home economists, and home ec teachers who are specially trained to answer every possible question about preparing a turkey.
For the inside scoop on all things turkey, Holidash talked with the delightful Marty Van Ness, a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line® Supervisor, and 18 year Talk-Line veteran. So who answers the phones at 1-800-Butterball? Van Ness says, "There are 55 of us located in Naperville, IL, a suburb of Chicago, and we handle all the calls and questions that people have about preparing their Butterball turkey. This year we started [answering phone calls and emails] on November 2nd and will go through New Year's Eve day. We're here Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST, as well as over the two weekends before Thanksgiving and the weekend before Christmas." The Talk-Line experts expect to field approximately 100,000 calls in November and December.
That's a lot of questions about turkey.
What are people asking about this year? Van Ness says spatchcocking is trendy right now. "You butterfly the whole turkey," she explains, and "remove the bones and save about an hour of cooking. Another trend that comes up is cooking turkeys upside down. Now, we try everything [in the Butterball test kitchens], so we can say 'Here's what worked.' For that one, it turned out it's too cumbersome to turn over a hot turkey!"
"The easiest, simplest way," Van Ness says, "is to roast it with the open pan method and no cover. You get the best flavor, and it looks gorgeous."
So does turkey ever get old? Van Ness says no; she's a year-round turkey fan. "I like it because it's lean and you can do a lot with it. The flavor doesn't overpower the other ingredients. In the spring I'll bone the breast for Easter, put a smaller one on the grill in the summer, and make turkey salad with the leftovers. Of course I do a lot in the fall, for football games. I like to make ground turkey chili -- I could eat that all year long!" But, she adds,"I do have to hold back about a week before Thanksgiving to get ready for the big meal."
Van Ness will be answering phones at the Talk-Line on Thanksgiving day, but that doesn't mean she will miss out on her turkey dinner. "My husband, Ron, always does the bird since I'm on the Turkey Talk-Line all day. This year his birthday falls on Thanksgiving, so we'll eat when I get home and have a special celebration." It must be hard to cook a turkey for a turkey expert, right? Van Ness says no. "He gets the bird in early, and knows to put it in the oven and leave it alone. And I have a special surprise planned for dessert." We wouldn't want to spoil any birthday surprises, but there are some wonderful dessert recipes at Butterball.com. Lucky Ron!
Van Ness will spend Thanksgiving providing words of calming wisdom to cooks who are at their wit's end. Occasionally, her advice will be to toss the turkey and serve something else. "Sometimes we'll hear people mention something that's a true safety concern, like the turkey's been at room temperature for two days. We let them know that's a food safety issue," she says. "It's a hard decision, and people are disappointed, but I always tell them, 'You know you'll never do it again!' And it happens to everyone. You lose track of things, the holidays are busy. We try to make it so that everyone is laughing together at the end, even in challenging conversations." And of course, tossing that unsafe turkey is always better than winding up in the emergency room with food poisoning.
What's the craziest question Van Ness has ever been asked? "I got a guy a couple of years ago," she says, "in a hurry to thaw a turkey, wanted to know where to set the dial on his electric blanket to thaw it out? That's one of the red flag questions! I explained how to put it in cold water to thaw it out." We're writing that down: No electric blanket.
"The guys are cute," she adds, "because they've figured out a solution, but, to be on the safe side, they want to run it by us. Or his wife or girlfriend knows it's a bad idea, and convinces him to call so we can be the ones to break the news."
If you have questions for Marty -- or for any of the Talk-Line experts -- you can send them an email. And be sure to check out the Butterball Facebook page, and to follow Butterball on Twitter (@butterball). And don't forget that you can call the Talk-Line directly at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. Van Ness says, "Some things you need to talk about, you need that supportive voice on the other end of the line. We're there to help!"