Thanksgiving war stories from a Butterball ‘call girl’

November 21, 2012

Dynamic Range is taking a break for Thanksgiving and will be back the first week of December. In the meantime, check out this updated episode that originally ran in November 2011:

Butterball produces 20 percent of the turkeys Americans eat every year. And since 1981 their Turkey Talk-Line experts have handled some 100,000 calls each holiday season from frantic home cooks trying to impress their in-laws or salvage a dinner gone horribly wrong.

Butterball’s corporate headquarters are in Garner, North Carolina, but their call-in line is located in Naperville, Ill. And, as the company struggles with its public image and new allegations of animal abuse at its North Carolina plants, the ladies of the Talk-Line may be the company's best public face: Some of the experts who work there from November to December every year seem to comfortably conform to a kind of 1950s Suzy Homemaker ethos, pleasingly plump Betty Crockerites who majored in home ec. Others are bilingual registered dieticians with master’s degrees.

Sixty call specialists will be on hand this year to answer questions ranging from the mundane – How long will it take my 18 lb. beast to thaw? – to the shocking – My turkey is on fire. What should I do?

The answer to that last question, incidentally, is to hang up and call 9-1-1.

Butterball’s experts recommend taking as long as four full days to thaw your turkey. They’ll also be happy to walk you through the steps of microwaving the bird, if that’s what you want to do. It’s apparently their “least popular method,” despite being all the rage in the ‘80s, but is still not as horrifying or as gross as cooking a live lobster in the microwave.

Renee Ferguson is a former Butterball expert and self-described Butterball “call girl” who parleyed her experience on the hotline into a cookbook – Talk Turkey to Me (Wishbone Press 2006) – and an appearance on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

Ferguson appeared on the show's “Turkey and Dressing” episode, for which she made roasted turkey with an apple sausage dressing and an apricot amaretto sauce. Flay won the round with his combination of a black pepper-pomegranate molasses glazed turkey with a wild rice, goat cheese and chorizo dressing.

If you have any last minute cooking disasters before the big meal on Thursday you can call Ferguson’s former colleagues in Naperville between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at 1-800-288-8372. (And now, you can also tweet them @butterball with the hashtag #TurkeyChat.) In the meantime, listen to Ferguson’s account of her all-time favorite calls – and some of her cooking war stories – in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Renee Ferguson spoke at an event presented by Culinary Historians of Chicago in November of 2010. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.