Carol Miller has had a hand in more Thanksgivings than most chefs. She's there when the turkey doesn't thaw in time, and when the oven repeatedly turns off, and when, despite all your best efforts, dinner gets burned. She's there even when your family has completely given up on you.
Miller, who calls herself a "turkey godmother," is a veteran of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, a hotline for people with bird-related questions around the holidays. The service was first introduced in 1981, when the first six home economics experts manned the phones and found themselves answering 11,000 calls between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Miller joined the group in 1984, and today the Turkey Talk-Line employs more than 50 experts -- from chefs, to dietitians, to home-ec gurus -- and just this year, the company hired the first male helpline operators in response to the growing number of calls Butterball receives from men looking for turkey advice.
We caught up with Miller to get the lowdown on talking turkey and the new crop of men who've joined the force.
EOW: I know you work for Butterball, but is the Talk-Line something you can do from home? Or is there an office?
CM: I'm actually at Butterball in Chicago right now. Our room is Butterball blue, and it's about the size of two basketball courts. Today there are probably about 15 people here, but on Thanksgiving day there will 50 people answering calls. And if I turn around and look behind me ... I talk with my hands, and a lot of my coworkers do too, so you can tell what they're talking about. You can see them covering the breast with foil and putting thermometers in the turkeys. It's really funny.
EOW: So how does a Thanksgiving day at the Turkey Talk-Line go down?
CM: You think the airports are busy on Thanksgiving? We've got a lot on the airports! So as the day progresses, we start with the turkeys on the east coast, like in New York. I'll generally work two shifts, so I'll work from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. then go home for my feast and come back from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. When I get back we're starting to get the turkeys on the west coast.
EOW: How did you get involved with the Turkey Talk-Line?
CM: I started in 1984. I was home with my children doing PTA and Girl Scouts and picnicking during the day, and I decided maybe I should get back into my professional career. I have a degree in home economic education, so a friend who had worked at the Talk-Line suggested I try it. And here I am, how many years later? I'm now one of the supervisors. I've done two freshman trainings this year to get the staff ready. The rest of the year, I work at a grocery store where I'm in charge of the gourmet cheese department.
EOW: So you train people once they're hired, but in order to get hired, do they have to show credentials or demonstrate cooking skills?
CM: Most everyone has a degree related to food or food education. Butterball trains us in the Butterball test kitchens where we learn to roast turkeys in 10 different ways, using different methods, so when we talk to people we can say, "Yeah, I've done that. These are the results, these are the problems." We also each have a blue binder -- Butterball blue -- that's 4 inches thick and tabbed with everything we need for quick reference, from the advantages of using a Butterball turkey to the yield of white meat, dark meat, etc. from a certain-sized turkey. There's really great info there. So by the time you start answering the phone calls, you're ready. Usually that first year, though ... that first phone call you get a little nervous.
EOW: What's the most common question you get?
CM: The number one question is about thawing. People are used to thawing something much smaller than a 14 -pound turkey. My motto is, "Buy early, thaw easy." Tuck it into the fridge on a tray and allow one day of thawing for every four pounds, and then you don't have to do anything. And then after it's thawed, it's good for four more days. We do get calls from new dads to-be where they have the turkey thawing, and mom goes into labor, and he gives us a call to see if they turkey will be OK. I tell them you have an additional four days, go worry about the baby and have Thanksgiving when you get back!
EOW: What's the weirdest question you've ever gotten?
CM: I've been doing this a long time, so every year there's one that stands out. Last year the one I remember was on Thanksgiving day; this lady called and said she needed to speed up the cooking because her guests were arriving. The lady kept going into the kitchen and discovering the oven was off. And then she caught her labradoodle turning off the oven. I said, "Keep the dog out, turn the oven up 25 degrees, and you'll be fine!"
EOW: Do people call in with questions unrelated to Butterball turkeys? Other brands, for example?
CM: Yes, and that's okay. We save many turkeys.
EOW: So this is the first year you've had men staffing the lines, right?
CM: Yes. I know it sounds kind of weird, but one out of four of our callers are men. It's just that no man has ever applied before. But look at how the Thanksgiving table is changing. I have a son and a son-in-law who both shop and cook for their families. And my husband cooks the turkey while I'm here. We did a survey and found out that 40 percent of the men we talked to prepped and cooked the Thanksgiving turkey. So it only makes sense we get their perspective.
EOW: So how many men are working there now?
CM: Well, we had a national search, and now we have one man who's the national spokesperson, but we also have several other men from the Chicago area. The spokesperson isn't from Chicago.
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EOW: Can you tell me anything about him?
CM: I don't think it's been announced yet, but it's definitely going to be fun.
EOW: Awesome. Anything else you want to add?
CM: Just that there is no way that people can miss us. It's 1-800-BUTTERBALL. It's easy! People were astounded that you could call in 1981 and get free advice, but now you can go to the website and have live chats, and you can reach us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all of those! But, of course, if you'd prefer to chat on the phone, we'd love to talk to you, too!