When it comes to Christmas dinner mishaps, Mary Clingman, director of the Butterball Turkey Talk Line, has heard it all.
Each year between American Thanksgiving and Christmas, from a nondescript call centre in Naperville, Ill., she and her fellow "turkey talkers" calmly answer the calls of more than 100,000 frazzled home cooks across the United States and Canada.
During her 28 years of working at 1-800-BUTTERBALL, Clingman has offered sober solutions for all kinds of culinary crises, ranging from your run-of-the-mill overcooked bird (never underestimate the corrective powers of a good gravy) to dinner destruction by hungry pets (surrender, and order Chinese take-away).
She has received her share of eyebrow-raising queries as well: How do you cook a turkey for people who don't eat meat? And how do you save a turkey that is starting to spoil? (The answer to both: You don't.)
"Sometimes people do things that are kind of crazy, like they've cleaned the turkey with steel wool because they think the turkey should be really clean, that kind of thing," she says.
Since Butterball sells roughly 600 million kilograms (1.3 billion pounds) of turkey a year, chances are that most North Americans who celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving have encountered the company's birds at a holiday feast. And in the 31 years since Butterball launched its talk line, its experts have heard of almost every turkey mishap imaginable. There was the woman from Colorado who stashed her turkey in a snowbank because she had no space for it in the freezer, only to lose track of where she had buried it after a fresh snowfall. Then there was the young mother who stuffed her bird as her toddler played nearby, and later realized she had inadvertently roasted his toy car inside the fowl.
Over the years, Clingman has seen turkey fads come and go. When she first started the job, many home cooks were preparing their birds in dark, oval, enamel roasting pans. Later, electric covered roasters experienced a surge in popularity; microwaving Christmas dinner became a relatively short-lived craze. "Believe it or not, you can have a great turkey cooked in a microwave," Clingman says.
These days, people are cooking their turkeys in convection ovens, gas grills, charcoal grills and smokers. And deep-frying turkey has taken off.
As popular cooking methods have changed, so too have the talk line's means of communicating with home cooks. Whereas callers were once limited to phoning from home on their land lines, they can now contact the turkey talkers via e-mail, live chats, Facebook and Twitter.
Clingman says cellphone technology has allowed her to take a fretful call from a grocery store, from an inexperienced cook who had just lost a bet to prepare dinner for 20. Clingman was able to help him pick up all the ingredients he needed to make the meal, from gravy to mashed potatoes.
Marge Klindera, now in her 30th season as a turkey talker, says most calls are more heart-warming than hilarious. There was the 70-year-old woman who called for help because it was her first Christmas without her mother (who had recently passed away) cooking the holiday dinner. There was the new bride, speaking in a whisper, because her mother and mother-in-law were arguing about how to cook the turkey. There was the proud widower determined to prepare Christmas dinner on his own, so he wouldn't appear helpless to his children.
"We're like calling Mom or Grandma for those answers," Klindera says.
But Clingman admits even the professionals are not impervious to turkey blunders. Last Christmas, while preparing her own bird, she got distracted by a phone call and overcooked it. "That's when gravy comes in handy," she says. "People say, 'You guys never make mistakes.' Are you kidding?"
The Butterball method
Roast the turkey, uncovered, at 325 degrees F (163 C) in a shallow pan, taking care to elevate the bird from the bottom of the pan, using a rack, says Turkey Talk-line director Mary Clingman. If you don't have a rack, place some carrots under the bird, or a wad of aluminum foil scrunched into the shape of a doughnut.
To avoid overcooking the breast meat, which tends to dry out more quickly than the thighs, she advises placing a piece of aluminum foil over the breast about two-thirds of the way through the cooking time. The thighs will have the chance to become tender, while the breast meat will remain juicy.