The Butterball Talk-Line
Every year around this time, millions of Americans come down with an acute case of diemeleagrisphobia. How bad is the affliction? A quick Google search provides clues. Type in “fear of cooking turkey” and 67.5 million (million!) results come up. “Is it difficult to cook turkey” produces a whopping 158 million results.
Diemeleagrisphobia isn’t a real word in Latin — or any language, for that matter. It’s not even a true phobia, given that it was purportedly coined by Food Network host Alton Brown to sum up the fear of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. But it is, nonetheless, a common feeling, as Nicole Johnson can attest. She spends weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season counseling those afflicted.
As director of the esteemed Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, she hears it all — the bizarre ideas (no, you shouldn’t defrost your turkey in a dishwasher); the poignant moments (the widower cooking Thanksgiving for his family for the first time after the death of his wife); the terror (in-laws arriving in an hour, turkey still frozen). Johnson has been “talking turkey” since 2001, as they like to say at the company.
So, why are so many Americans (and Canadians!) so terrified of cooking turkey? Is it really that hard? Short answer: No, it’s actually pretty straightforward.
Like many things in life, it’s the expectation that causes the anxiety. Our national holiday stuffs Norman Rockwell visions and pumpkin spice into the heated pressure cooker of modern American family dynamics. With such volatile ingredients, the holidays can easily overheat.
So, how do you bring down the boiling point? A reassuring voice — an actual human, no AI! — can make all the difference, Johnson said.
“I have an acronym that I call PUG: Patience, Understanding and Grace,” said Johnson, who chatted via Zoom from her home in Illinois in late September as she was gearing up for the Talk-Line staff’s extensive training sessions. “Because you really don’t know, maybe someone is abrupt on the other line; we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. We never want to take anything personally. Our job is to provide them nutritional advice and food safety, but also that counseling aspect — put yourself in their shoes, help calm them down. That reassuring voice might change the whole day for them.”
Each year, thousands of people call the Talk-Line, which is staffed by more than 50 food science and nutrition professionals. Everyone on the job is a turkey expert. At minimum, they hold bachelor’s degrees, though most have master’s, and two have doctorates, all in dietetics, food science, nutrition or related culinary fields. Some are retired professors; others have full-time jobs and take time off to operate the seasonal hotline, which operates from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24.
Talk-Line staffers range in age from the mid-20s up to 81 years old. “The average tenure is 16 years,” Johnson said. In addition to professional credentials, there’s another prerequisite for the job: empathy. “It’s something I look for in every single interview (for a Talk-Line position).”
That’s been the bedrock of the hotline all the way back to its founding. In 1981, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line was born with the goal of de-stressing the holiday and advertising the brand. That year, six home economists — all female, armed with culinary knowledge stored in an old-school Rolodex — served 11,000 callers.
Since then, the Talk-Line has fielded nearly three million calls, and the team includes “eight or nine men,” Johnson said. Nowadays, home cooks looking for advice can reach the hotline by text, email and chat as well as the old-fashioned way (dialing a number). The phone remains the heart of the operation.
“There’s something special about that connection over the line,” Johnson said. “We get that often — callers are surprised they’re not reaching a recording; it’s truly someone live on the phone.” By 2023, it sure seems like YouTube would have killed the Talk-Line. But a video is cold comfort compared to the soft Midwestern lilt of the Naperville, Ill.-based team.
Callers, too, range in age and temperament. “We might get a first-time cook, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re young in age,” Johnson said. “They might be handed that task of preparing their first Thanksgiving meal in their 50s, 60s. Maybe their mom’s always done it, and now she’s no longer here.
“We do get a lot of phone calls from [people shopping at] the grocery store,” she continued. “They ask us what kind of turkey to purchase. Fresh, frozen? They’re calling the day before Thanksgiving. They don’t realize it takes X number of days to defrost a turkey. OK, not to worry, you can purchase a fresh turkey.”
Johnson can relate to the calls from the busy moms, kids cutting up in the background. When Johnson started at the Talk-Line, she was right out of graduate school. “I started when I was 22, 23 years old. I didn’t have any kids at that time. Now I have four kiddos,” she said. “My oldest is off to college, my youngest is in the sixth grade. My kids have grown up with it.”
All staffers are required to attend kitchen, phone and chat/email trainings in October. Most of the Talk-Line staffers still work in person on the fifth floor of their office in Naperville. But since the pandemic, a few have gone remote.
“It’s a dedicated team,” Johnson said. “They give up their Thanksgiving every year.” Shifts can last from eight to 10 hours. The average length of a call is three-and-a-half minutes, though there’s no time limit. “The fun ones are on the speaker phone, maybe it’s a husband and wife; he believes one way, she believes another way,” she said, “and we are the turkey mediator.”
The busiest shifts are, no surprise, during the week of Thanksgiving, particularly from 6 to 10 on Thanksgiving morning. “As soon as we open the phones, we already have a queue,” Johnson said. But the team also gets a good warm-up in October, when they host a Butterball Talk-Line for the Canadian Thanksgiving, which took place Oct. 9 this year. The food traditions are similar; turkey remains the star of the table.
For the Canadian callers, a French/English bilingual staffer joins the phones. There are also Spanish-speaking turkey experts available during the full season.
On both sides of the border, the staffers know that there’s a common misperception about the “difficulty” of cooking turkey. “The idea that it takes all day, all night; Grandma wakes up at 3 in the morning to cook the turkey. That’s not the case,” Johnson said. “We ask you the weight of the turkey, stuffed or unstuffed, and then we give you a range (for how long it will take). My oven is newer, so it might cook faster than my mom’s.”
To make sure they’re speaking the same culinary language as their callers, the Talk-Line staffers also bone up on various regional cooking techniques and dishes. They know about frying turkeys, popular on the Gulf Coast, and they can provide safety tips for what happens when a refrigerated bird hits boiling oil. They also understand that some people (bless their hearts) call it stuffing, not dressing.
“A few years ago, microwaving a turkey started as a social media joke,” Johnson said, “but it became a craze.” Why, oh why, would someone want to microwave a turkey? “Well, if your oven is out of commission and you didn’t realize it until Thanksgiving morning, and you’re looking around wondering how else you can cook a turkey,” Johnson said. “We would talk to you about an outdoor grill, maybe, depending on where you live. I might talk about a crockpot, if the turkey is small enough. But the microwave can be done. It’s tedious, and there are some steps involved. But at the end of the day, you do have a cooked turkey. (In case you’re wondering, microwaved turkey tastes more steamed than roasted.)
Other funny calls over the years include the woman whose dog jumped up, grabbed the turkey from the dinner table and dragged the whole thing to the floor and started eating it — before the family could sit down for their meal. Johnson could relate to that one — “I have a giant Goldendoodle and a little Frenchie,” she said — and the Talk-Line helped the caller figure out that a fresh turkey (already defrosted) would save the day — and meal.
So, what is Johnson’s No. 1 tip for turkey perfection? “Do not forget about your best friend on Thanksgiving Day — your meat thermometer, of course. It should register 180 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the thigh and 170 in the breast for best eating quality.”
Professional Background: The Fall of 2001 was a busy one. Nicole was finishing up her graduate student work in nutrition dietetics and starting her first season of talking turkey with the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. Over the last 20+ years of talking turkey, she has developed lifelong friendships with the Butterball team that have become an extension of her own family. She cannot imagine spending Thanksgiving with anyone but the Butterball family!
Go-to Thanksgiving Tip: Do not forget about your best friend on Thanksgiving Day — your meat thermometer, of course! It should register 180 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the thigh and 170 in the breast for best eating quality!
Favorite Thing About Talking Turkey: I love talking turkey to all the different “kitchens” in America; some are quiet, others are full of chatter. The connection remains the same, however: providing the best advice to help celebrate their Thanksgiving meal.