Turkey Hotline

A celebration of turkey and pop culture just in time for the holidays—including how a telephone hotline somehow combined all three.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from David Buck, who decided to hit us with a whole lot of Thansgiving talk. Dig in. Thanks!

Today in Tedium: Thanksgiving is normally a time of celebration and family get-togethers, but due to the neverending nightmare that is 2020, everyone’s had to make some adjustments. This year, I’ll be spending the holiday at home, enjoying dinner and maybe watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles. While it may not have the excessive decorations, songs (Adam Sandler’s “Thanksgiving Song” notwithstanding) or month long celebrations associated with other holidays, Thanksgiving is still an important American tradition for many of us. Cooking the dinner, however, is another story. Even the best cooks need a little assistance once in a while. In today’s Tedium, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving in our own way with the 2020 Tedium Thanksgiving Special. Hold the stuffing, please. — David @ Tedium

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The number of operators the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line had when it began operations in 1981. Staffed by a group of home economists, the hotline had a single mission: to answer the burning turkey-preparation questions of aspiring cooks everywhere. After answering over 11,000 questions in its inaugural year alone, the hotline became a popular fixture of the holiday over the next three decades. Although the hotline started quite small, there are now at least 50 operators as of 2019 and it continues to operate from November 1st to December 24th each year out of Butterball’s Naperville, Illinois offices.

Turkey Thanksgiving Cooking

(SJ/Unsplash)

How a turkey company turned a market gimmick into a genuinely helpful service

Among the many joys of Thanksgiving—spending time with family, watching the game and stuffing your face with delicious food—comes one dreaded activity: the actual cooking and preparation of the meal itself. While cooking can sometimes be a pain, the meal is usually worth the effort, especially when pecan pie and green bean casserole are involved. Sometimes, however, preparing the food can present some challenges.

Take my extended family, for example. One aunt thought that if she put the turkey in at a higher temperature would allow her to cook it for less time. Instead, she ended up with a “burnt, kind of crispy turkey on the outside, but a horrible raw mess on the inside.” Another aunt thought the package of giblets (the heart, lungs and other internal organs) in the turkey was actually pre-made stuffing that came with the turkey. She baked the turkey with the giblets inside and was shocked to find out it wasn’t stuffing at all.

Then there was the year of the pumpkin pie incident. The first time she baked a pumpkin pie, she and the recipe did not get along very well. A few confused measurements later and the family ended up with a very salty pumpkin pie. How did it taste? Well, it was the saltiest pie we’ve ever had. The cooking has improved since then, but there’s a family rule now preventing her from baking pies during the holidays. Situations like these probably aren’t the norm, but they aren’t atypical either. One company decided to step in and help out people experiencing turkey trouble and the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line was born.

Some of the dishes we associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal were shaped by marketing and corporate influences over the years, and the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is almost an extension of that very same influence extending into a larger communications—and later, multimedia—role.

Telephone Hotline

(Mike Meyers/Unsplash)

Take the case of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, for instance. What originally began as a marketing gimmick in 1981 by Chicago public relations executive Pam Talbot eventually turned into a Thanksgiving institution. Pitching what she referred to as a way to deal with “turkey trauma,” the hotline was born. Working out of a small notebook and binders, six operators tackled some tough turkey questions on their toll-free phone line. As time passed, the staff grew and they received more and more questions each year.

The talk-line receives numerous questions each year, with some of the most common being basic cooking/prep questions like “how do I thaw the turkey?” or “what can I do to prevent the turkey from being too dry?” They likely receive these questions so often that the official talk-line web page contains a step-by-step guide to address every part of the turkey cooking process. It contains a particular focus on thawing—the most common question they receive each year—with a handy chart showing thawing times relative to turkey weight and whether aspiring cooks are thawing the bird in water or the fridge. There’s even a helpful video to go along with the information.

Many of the calls the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line receives each year are just as outlandish and humorous as my family’s Thanksgiving tales of terror. But ultimately, the hotline performs a genuinely helpful service and fills a gap where a traditional Google search might lack correct or properly nuanced information. Want to give them a call with a burning turkey conundrum of your own? Dial 1-800-BUTTERBALL and you’ll be carving up that turkey with a chainsaw in no time at all …

“The Butterball talk line is one of the great marketing ideas of modern American consumerism, right up there with using a national baking contest to promote Pillsbury flour, or Clydesdales to sell Budweiser.”

Writer Kim Severson, in her 2019 New York Times feature on the Butterball Talk-Line. Celebrating the storied history of the hotline, she paused to reflect on how this single marketing idea became ingrained into the psyche of the American consumer and, eventually, a part of our collective pop culture holiday experience.

Butterball Turkey

(Kristin Andrus/Flickr)

The Butterball Talk-Line is surprisingly relevant today

By keeping a pulse on what its customers want and how they use technology, the hotline continues to adapt and evolve each year. The endless array of calculators and charts on Butterball’s website is enough to impress the most seasoned of cooks and their conversational, friendly presentation of information gives them a sort of home/family feel. Reading the tips on the website makes one feel as if they’re sitting in their grandmother’s kitchen learning how to cook for the first time.

Though they continue to use phone calls via their hotline, potential turkey cooks can also text them, chat live on social media and even ask Amazon’s Alexa for help (the talk-line was integrated into Amazon devices in 2018). Some celebrities even participate in dispensing turkey preparation advice. In 2019, Freddie Prinze Jr. (whom you may remember from, I dunno, the 2002 live action version of Scooby Doo?) joined the talk-line for a time, imparting his own culinary wisdom to delighted callers everywhere. Per Butterball, Prinze Jr. is “all that” in the kitchen. Go figure. Reflecting on his brief stint as a Butterball Talk-Line operator, he told NBC, “Over the years I’ve enjoyed all kinds of Thanksgiving celebrations and know that as long as you have good people and good food, it’s going to be a holiday to remember.”

In 2013, Butterball added the first men to their roster of talk-line professionals. Prior to that, only women filled the role. Today, workers at the talk-line are all experts in a culinary field and go through extensive training to become operators. Many of them tend to stay on staff for a long period of time as well, with new positions only ever being advertised through word-of-mouth. Butterball’s senior brand manager, Rebecca Welch, told Adweek earlier this year:

Our experts have a ton of experience. Quite a few of our members have been on the talk line for over 20 years, so they’re prepared for all the emotional support or pep talks or, you know, anything to get a holiday host through their concerns.

With many of the lockdown and stay-at-home orders in place throughout the year, Butterball expects more calls from first-time cooks and the hotline is a significant part of their overall brand strategy. Welch said, “when we conduct surveys, one of the things we see is that Butterball is known for trust and quality. We see the Turkey Talk-Line as the embodiment of that trust.” It’s surprisingly refreshing to speak with a knowledgeable human about a cooking problem over the phone. The interaction of a one-on-one conversation can be more powerful than simply looking up instructions online.

Today, there are countless imitators out there on the radio, internet and via Butterball’s competitors, but none of them hold a card to the original turkey talk line where it all began. Who would have thought a 40-year old marketing gimmick would eventually become a trustworthy institution that could bring together so many people in dark times?

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The temperature (in degrees) the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line recommends using for cooking your turkey in the oven. They cover a few different kinds of turkeys, but since most of us will probably be working with fresh or frozen whole turkeys, here’s how Butterball recommends we cook them: Preheat the oven first. Then the fun begins with draining the juices and patting the turkey dry with some paper towels. Find a 2 to 2 1/2-inch deep pan and place the turkey breast-side inside the pan. Ok, that’s pretty obvious stuff so far. Now, put some vegetable/cooking oil on the skin, place a thermometer into the bird and put it in the oven. Roast it and make sure the internal temperature is 170 F for the breast and 180 F for the thigh. After about 15 minutes of cooling, it’s time to carve that bird up and serve it to your family. Use an electric turkey carver; it’s more fun that way.

Five pieces of pop culture we’re thankful for this year

Once the turkey is in the oven, it’s time to turn on the TV and get ready to consume some pop culture! There are always many things for which to be thankful throughout the year. Health and family are at the top of our list (especially this year!), but we’re also thankful for some of the Thanksgiving pop culture that comes around each year. Sure, Halloween and Christmas get plenty of cartoons, songs, adaptations and movies but Thanksgiving seems to get the short end of the stick. Sure, there’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and an endless stream of football games on local TV, but sometimes it’s better to dig a little deeper into the holiday’s pop culture well for some truly interesting stuff. Here are five pop cultural things we’re thankful for this year, in no particular order:

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

(Courtesy CBS)

5. Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on TV and streaming. Earlier this year, Apple TV+ became the home for Peanuts and all of its associated holiday specials. This did cause a bit of an uproar as not everyone is into streaming, but it’s nice to have the special available at your fingertips anytime to view with your family. Luckily, Apple did strike a deal with PBS to air the program this year on the public broadcasting station and to make the show available for free from Nov. 25-27 on Apple TV itself. It starts streaming Nov. 18. The Peanuts holiday specials have long been a fun family tradition for us and we look forward to viewing them each year.

4. The MST3K marathon with new host segments. For many of its fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a Thanksgiving institution. This year’s marathon will feature new host segments and a series of fan-selected episodes. As of publishing time, the final lineup looks like it’s going to be I Accuse My Parents (Season 5, Episode 7), Hobgoblins (Season 9, Episode 7), Pod People (Season 3, Episode 3), Final Justice (Season 10, Episode 8) and probably Eegah (Season 5, Episode 6). I’ll be tuning in for Hobgoblins, Final Justice and Pod People for sure. It can be found at Pluto TV, Twitch, Samsung TV Plus, Comcast Xfinity, Xumo, Vizio, Redbox, IMDB TV, STIRR, Sling TV, Theta.TV, LocalNow, and the MST3K YouTube Channel. With so many venues to catch the marathon, give yourself the gift of laughter and check out an episode or two to see what this show is all about!

3. Dr. Demento’s musical turkeys. Each year, Dr. Demento releases an episode of his radio/internet show filled with endearing, ridiculous and silly songs about Thanksgiving. Some of them are what he deems “musical turkeys.” These are songs that are often low quality, poorly recorded or otherwise bad that have endearing qualities to them. He mixes them up with some funnier Thanksgiving songs and every few years he’ll spin Arlo Guthrie’s fantastic opus, “Alice’s Restaurant Masacree.” Our friends at Radio Survivor recently did an amazing interview with the actual Alice (Alice Brock) from the song.

It’s worth the price of admission alone to hear the wide variety of songs and stories. For the record, there are at least two superb Thanksgiving songs: the aforementioned Arlo Guthrie tune and Loudon Wainwright III’s 1989 poignant tale of a family gathering simply titled “Thanksgiving.”

2. Alex Winter’s Zappa documentary. On the heels of one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in recent memory, Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) takes a deep dive into the life and career of the iconoclastic musician in this incredibly in-depth documentary. Though he’s known for some of his movie roles—most readers probably know him as Bill S. Preston, Esq, half of the time-traveling slacker duo in the Bill & Ted series—he’s carved out quite a career as a director of interesting documentaries. Not only did Winter manage to save Zappa’s entire vault for posterity, he presents an incredibly detailed look at one of my favorite musicians in a way most Zappa documentaries have never done before.

1. The Simpsons, Bart vs. Thanksgiving. I’ve been a fan of The Simpsons since it began. Though I haven’t seen much of the show beyond the 14th season, this episode from season two sticks in my memory around the holidays. After destroying a Thanksgiving centerpiece made by his sister Lisa, Bart runs away from what he perceives to be the entire family being against him. As he goes through his holiday, he realizes things are better for him than he realized. It’s a heartwarming story of redemption, compassion and understanding that we don’t see often enough these days.

“Cut it. Forget it. Forget it, Richard. You know, I said, when the turkey concept was first brought up, I said there’s a very good chance I’m gonna end up looking stupid if I come out wearing it. I mean, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s Thanksgiving, go ahead.’”

— Singer-songwriter Paul Simon, addressing the audience during his Saturday Night Live appearance on November 20, 1976. Simon took to the stage for the opening monologue dressed in a hilarious full turkey costume. He proceeded to sing a few bars of his hit song, “Still Crazy after all these Years” before deciding he looked ridiculous and eventually speaking to Lorne Michaels about how goofy the costume looked. Michaels assures him the costume looked great. Although it was a one-off joke in the episode just before Thanksgiving, it’s become an iconic and recognizable part of pop culture tied to the holiday. Michaels and Simon were old friends by the time SNL launched and Simon would continue to make appearances on the show several times over the years as both host and musical guest. (He even met his wife, Edie Brickell, on the SNL set.)

I used to spend my Thanksgiving holidays at work. For most of my working life, I’d either get a plate to eat during my break or eat leftovers the next day. This year is different, however, so it will be both exciting and strange to celebrate the holiday at home this year. I’m looking forward to it, however, and I’ll definitely enjoy the well-cooked Butterball turkey we’ll be eating. While I didn’t need to call the hotline for cooking tips, who knows? There’s always next year. I’m still not putting any stuffing in my turkey (stuffing is gross; celery is worse). You can’t make me.

As the end of the year approaches, it’s important to remember to be kind and thankful to those around us. The holidays can still be a time of peace and joy, even in these dark times. Whether it’s preparing a turkey for the first time, re-watching something familiar or having a salty slice of pumpkin pie, try to make the best of the holiday this year. Listen to your favorite music, hug your pet and, as a famous musical duo once said, “be excellent to each other.”

After all, this holiday is all about togetherness and gratitude—even if I decide to eat the entire pumpkin pie all by myself.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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