Phyllis Kramer is a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line expert based in Aurora, Illinois.
She’s been working for the Talk-Line during the holidays for 18 years, answering customer questions about how to choose, thaw, prepare, and cook their turkeys.
Over the years, Kramer says she’s gotten countless wild calls including customers who’ve asked if they can wrap their turkey in an electric blanket or slip it into a hot tub to make thaw it more quickly.
She thaws her own turkey in the refrigerator, and this year is using the open-pan roasting method with thyme and paprika seasoning.
Here’s what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
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I’ve been talking turkey on the Butterball Talk-Line for 18 years now. I like to think of myself as a Turkey Tutor, although a caller once referred to me as their Turkey Godmother, which sounds kind of neat too.
When the Talk-Line first debuted in 1981, there were six women home economists and they answered 11,000 calls that year, starting with Canadian Thanksgiving in October through holiday celebrations in December.
Today there are 50 of us, both men and women. These days we answer calls, texts, emails, live chats, and questions on social media. We also have a Spanish talk-line, and there’s even a Butterball Skill app on Amazon’s Alexa that offers pre-recorded responses by Talk-Line experts to the most common questions.
We now assist over 100,000 people, fielding nearly 15,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone.
Due to COVID-19, we’ve experienced an increase in call volume because more people are staying home and cooking for the first time.
Some people assume my job must be easy, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
Everyone who works the Talk-Line has an extensive background in food preparation, ranging from dietitians to food scientists and researchers and chefs. I was a high school home economics teacher in Aurora, Illinois for 38 years. Each summer I would intern at a food-related business to ensure I was teaching students what they needed to know.
One summer I interned in the test kitchen at ConAgra Foods, which at the time owned Butterball and that’s where I learned about the talk-line. I remember thinking ‘When I retire, I’m going to do that’ and that’s exactly what I did.
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Every talk-line expert receives intensive training through Butterball University.
This is where we personally get to test a variety of ways to cook a turkey in our commercial test kitchen, learn about new products, and undergo both phone and media training over the course of several days. During our first three years on the job, we’re considered ‘Freshmen’ and must re-attend the training annually. In our fourth year, we are only required to join the advanced cooking methods training, however we’re always welcome to return to Butterball University if we feel like we need a refresher.
Because of the pandemic, our training took a different turn this year. We always get turkey homework but this time we had to do it from home. We were all assigned the task of spatchcocking a turkey which has become a very popular cooking method. Then we were required to take photos and send them in for feedback. We had two weeks to complete the assignment and then we all got together online and discussed the results as a group.
This year all the talk-line experts are taking calls remotely from home.
Traditionally in pre-pandemic years, we take calls side by side in one big room housed inside a building located in Naperville, Illinois. I do have a direct line to a supervisor if I need to confer with someone and discuss a caller’s question though. Although I miss my colleagues, it’s kind of fun to sit in my kitchen and talk about turkey all day long.
When the season starts, our shifts are four hours long. As we get closer to the holiday they become six hours long, and finally, work their way up to eight hours per shift.
Sometimes when I answer the phone, the person on the other end of the receiver will say, ‘Are you a real person or is this a recording?’ and they’re always so excited when I tell them I’m the real thing. People really long for that human connection and personal advice.
Our average call lasts three minutes and the most common question is how to thaw a frozen turkey.
We walk callers through refrigerator thawing or cold water thawing which is the way to go if you’re in a pinch. Over the years we’ve received calls from frantic men and women looking for last-minute ways to thaw their turkey. The wildest calls have been from people asking if they can wrap their turkey in an electric blanket or slip it into a hot tub to thaw it more quickly (spoiler alert: You can’t due to food safety guidelines!). If you’re in a jam and pressed for time, you can always buy a fresh whole turkey which doesn’t require thawing and requires little prep time.
Another popular question is “How do I know when my turkey is done? I always say it’s very important to have a meat thermometer which should read at least 170 degrees in the breast and 180 degrees in the thigh.
You can’t even begin to imagine the variety of panicked and funny calls we get.
One time I had a group of very upset people call me on speakerphone to tell me their 21-pound turkey had no meat on it. It took me a little before a light went off in my head, and I told them to turn the turkey over. It turned out they had roasted the turkey upside down. They were ecstatic when they turned the turkey over and saw all that juicy meat. They told me I saved the day.
Another time I had a guy call and tell me he was planning to propose on Thanksgiving and wanted to know if it was safe to put the engagement ring inside the turkey. It took a little while but I finally convinced him to put the ring in a box next to the turkey instead.
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This year people need us more than ever as they take on the role of first-time hosts.
Everyone is craving a sense of normalcy. Our theme this holiday at Butterball is “Celebrate the Good”. It’s a reminder to people that even though gatherings might be different and smaller, there’s still plenty to celebrate.
Our job is to try and make your celebration easier whether it’s answering your questions or providing a grocery list to ensure you make fewer trips to the store. We also offer video tutorials where you can learn everything from choosing your turkey to various cooking methods like roasting, deep frying, air frying, and brining.
When it comes to how much turkey you should buy, my advice is ‘Go Big’! Turkey is such a reasonably priced protein and if you have leftovers you can send everyone home with care packages, which is what I like to do.
This year I’ve talked to a lot of people who will be celebrating Thanksgiving at home while paying Zoom visits to family and friends. Some will be preparing the same menu so they can compare how everyone’s turned out. I’ve also heard from people mixing it up and making Greek turkey, Cajun turkey, and even a Southwestern one.
As for me, I’ll be working on Thanksgiving and then going to a friend’s to celebrate.
On Saturday, I plan to cook Thanksgiving at my house. It will be different than in past years. There will only be five of us and we’ll be wearing masks as well as we’ll be divided into two different rooms to observe social distancing.
I always thaw turkey in the refrigerator so that’s where it is right now. I use the open-pan method since I want a traditional flavor and appearance of a roasted turkey but before brushing the turkey with oil, I put a combination of seasonings in the oil. This year, I’ll use traditional seasonings — thyme, sage, chopped fresh rosemary, and a little paprika. Then I’ll rub this mixture all over the turkey.
Although I’m not planning on stuffing the turkey this year, I’ll put onions, celery, carrots, and some chopped fennel in the cavity. I also plan to serve carrots, parsnip puree, creamed fennel, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans with a mushroom sauce along with a stuffed turban squash. For dessert, I’m serving pecan pumpkin pie and a cranberry cake. Then I hollow out small pumpkins to fill with cranberry sauce for each guest. It looks so cute on the table.
I’m a real food lady. I love looking at it, talking about it, eating it, and cooking it. I’ve even got three turkeys in my freezer right now and to me, there’s nothing better than that. It’s like having money in the bank.
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