Have Holiday Help Hotlines Outlived Their Usefulness?


[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Picture this: It's the third wednesday of November in 1980. You've been so darn preoccupied with finding out Who Shot J.R. that you've only just realized that you forgot to pull the turkey out of the freezer and you've got a dozen relatives-in-law coming over for dinner tomorrow. You're not an expert in roasting turkeys—in fact, this may even be your first turkey ever. Your mother and your mother-in-law are giving you conflicting advice. What do you do? Where do you turn for answers?

Remember: this is 1980. Al Gore hasn't even begun to dream about thinking of how to imagine the internet yet, and the only way for you to communicate with others is to either walk up to their front door and ring the bell, or—option b—to call them up on the phone.

Some folks at Butterball considered this exact scenario and made Thanksgiving history the next year by introducing the first Turkey Hotline. Started in 1981, the Butterball Hotline received a whopping 11,000 phone calls in its first year alone. For the first time, home cooks trying to tackle turkey had someone to turn to, and most importantly, someone who hopefully had some real, scientifically backed answers rather than relying on gut instinct or the conflicting advice of relatives.

According to Butterball, by 2009, the number of calls had increased by an order of magnitude to over 100,000 phone calls every November and December. That's the equivalent of one out of every 750 households with a landline. Whoah!

Since then, it seems like everybody and their mother has started up a call-in hotline. But which one offers the best advice? Is one friendlier, more useful, faster than the others? More importantly, have phone-based hotlines outlived their usefulness in our wildly connected, information-at-your-fingertips world? I mean, here we are, over 30 years later, and a few of us at the Serious Eats office were wondering whether or not the nice lady on the other end of that 800- number really knows more about roasting fowl than the combined knowledge of the online community.


Turkey Talk

In order for a Thanksgiving hotline to be useful, it needs to have three features:

  • It must be able to answer any reasonable cooking question you have.
  • Its answers must be accurate and authoritative.
  • It must deliver its answers in real time—the busy schedule of a Thanksgiving home cook doesn't allow time for procrastination.

With these criteria in mind, we started calling up a few of the most popular numbers with a list of what we thought were fairly common questions on timing, temperature, brining, stuffing, and thawing. We quickly discovered something that surprised us: most Thanksgiving help hotlines aren't even really hotlines!

Hotline, Coldline

Call up Reynolds and you get to talk to a very friendly pre-recorded voice that will happily tell you how to defrost your turkey (just press 2), or, if you'd prefer, how to cook your turkey using a variety of Reynolds products (including what at first sounded like the "Reynolds Foil Pants Method," though after listening again, turns out that my silicone-based-companion was saying "Foil Tent" method. I think I'd prefer the former). That's not a hotline, that's at best a coldline.

Empire Kosher? Another coldline, this time with an additional number to call if you want to ask any questions about your turkey that aren't related to thawing or very basic roasting questions. Calling that number sends you straight to a voicemail box.

Other hotlines indeed will connect you to a real live person, but there are catches. The Food Network's "Thanksgiving Live!" is a television spectacle that happens to take calls from viewers. Given that you're even free on November 20th from 12 to 2pm (oops, too late!), you'll still either have to hope your call makes it through, or that someone else just happens to ask the questions you're most interested in.

Martha Stewart Radio on Sirius has its own Thanksgiving Hotline running all day monday and tuesday, but like the Food Network version, it's a live call-in show. This one's got a different celebrity chef host in one hour blocks. Fun to talk to and listen to? Sure. But restaurant chefs are notoriously bad at understanding the problems of a home cook.

Food52 gets plenty of points for engaging community members, but their Hotline is really nothing more than an internet message board with all of the benefits and pitfalls that come with them.

One question is answered merely with a link to another website: the USDA's "Let's Talk Turkey" website. Interestingly, it seems that pretty much every hotline we ended up calling gets their information directly from this same page.

Of all the numbers we tried, we found only two that were real-live, honest-to-goodness hotlines in which you could speak to a real person: the original Butterball line (800-288-8372) and the United States Department of Agriculture's own hotline (800-535-4555). But no matter who we called, we got information from the USDA's webpage as our answers nearly word for word.

Refrigerator thawing times were stated as "24 hours per four to five pounds" while thawing time in cold water is "half an hour per pound". Every single recording and even the real live people we managed to reach through Butterball and the USDA said in these words, "submerge your wrapped turkey in cold tap water," and to "change the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed."

How Good is the Advice?

With the myriad ways of cooking a turkey out there—the various theories as to which temperatures are best, how to flip, rotate, which rack to place the turkey on, etc, you'd expect at least some small degree of variation between the cooking instructions these hotlines give, but nope. Every single one repeats the USDA's cooking guide, telling you to cook your turkey in a roasting pan in a 325° to 350° oven with the exact same timing charts, and the optional advice to tent the breast with foil during the first or last stages of cooking to "keep it moist" (Reynolds, for the record, does not believe this advice is optional).

To their credit, nearly everyone recommends using a thermometer. However, just like the USDA, they all recommend cooking your turkey to a minimum temperature of 165°F in the breast meat to ensure that it's safe to eat. Unfortunately, this also ensures breast meat that's as dry as cardboard.

It's understandable. The USDA sets the safety guidelines for food consumption in the US. Nobody wants to claim responsibility for getting a whole family sick at a Thanksgiving table, and by sticking with the minimum USDA guidelines, companies like Butterball, Reynolds, or Empire can rest easy knowing that if the unthinkable happens, they've covered their bases and it's the USDA that'd get in trouble, not them.

When I asked a nice lady named Astrid from Butterball or the equally pleasant Rose from the USDA questions that strayed from those USDA fact sheets—about flipping turkeys or brining turkeys that are already brine-injected "enhanced" birds (like a Butterball), for example—the advice became anecdotal, as in "my mother once did that," or "Oh, I tried that last year and mine came out salty." Again, it seems that the authority of the hotlines we contacted begin and end with the USDA.

So are you better off talking to the Butterball folks than your dear mother-in-law? Probably, if only because placing the resolution in the hands of someone outside the immediately family is a good tactic for avoiding confrontation, but I wouldn't necessarily trust much of what they've got to say outside of the basic FAQ answers that can be found, well, pretty much anywhere on the internet.

Where's the Best Place For Turkey Advice

In a way, I know that I'm preaching to the choir here. In the Venn Diagram of internet users and turkey hotline callers, there's probably very little overlap, because as we now know, anything that can be heard from these folks and recordings on the other end of the line can be quite easily found on the USDA website—or better yet, on a website that doesn't treat everyone like the lowest common denominator. Fact is, you don't have to cook your turkey to 165°F for it to be totally safe. Cooking it to 145°F and letting it rest half an hour before serving it will kill off just as many harmful bacteria.

Serious Eats Drinks editor Maggie Hoffman says that the only person she knew who used to call a hotline was her grandmother, and even then, only "because I think she just wanted to talk to someone."

Even Butterball is getting into the new game with email-based responses and a highly active Twitter account where they occasionally offer advice to followers, even responding directly to questions that are asked.

All this is to say that I'm not trying to put anyone down—I understand that many people still use the phone as their primary means of communication, and many more people have absolutely no idea as to how to cook a turkey. For the intersection of those two groups, a turkey hotline—even one featuring a pre-recorded message—can be just about the only asset they have when it comes to cooking advice, and to the USDA's credit, following those instructions will deliver an edible turkey that definitely won't kill you.

This is a reasonably good end goal.

That said, the number of internet-less folks is getting smaller and smaller, which makes me wonder: In the age of the internet and freely-passed information, do hotlines even need to exist? Of course, there's plenty of bad advice online, but I'd be willing to wager the peace and harmony of my Thanksgiving table this year that the top returns on a google search for any question you might have about turkey would be at least as trustworthy (if not more so), and would come to you far faster than any answer a hotline would provide.

Your thoughts, please.