A telephone hot line for cooks who need to talk turkey

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Holiday tradition defies definition. What is traditional for one household is strange and unusual to another. Some people think the only thing to have on Thanksgiving is roast turkey with dressing, gravy, and cranberries. Others have barbecued turkey with giblet stuffing and corn on the cob.

Down the street or around the corner someone may be having smoked turkey with oyster stuffing -- and so it goes. Each family thinks its menu is the traditional one.

Nancy Rodriguez, coordinator of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, says she and her staff get a glimpse of the tremendous diversity of America's kitchens on this holiday as they handle the many phone calls received.

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The talk-line is a toll-free line for anyone with a turkey question on his or her mind -- or a crisis on his or her hands. In the past five years the turkey hot line has become a sort of research center for America's holiday cooking habits. The compiled data from nearly 300,000 computer-logged consumer calls indicates that although tradition triumphs, it is also interpreted in dozens of different ways.

In some homes, turkey is traditionally served along with venison, in others with ham. Some people cook dressing inside the turkey, others out. Some call dressing stuffing, while others call stuffing dressing.

Sweet potatoes give way to squash or to sauerkraut in some households. Corn might be served as corn bread or tamales might be on the menu -- or manicotti, dumplings, gumbo, chili, pinto beans, lima beans, and collard greens.

``The most asked questions are the same every year,'' Ms. Rodriguez says. ``How do I cook my turkey?'' has been answered 30,000 times. ``Although we always recommend the open pan method,'' she explains, ``we are prepared with instructions on covered pan, foil wrapping, smoking, microwaving, convection oven, outdoor grilling, and cooking on an open fire.

Another frequently asked question is about the stuffing, Ms. Rodriguez says. ``Some people make it with spinach or matzo meal, with apricots, artichokes, with potatoes or potato chips.'' This year, she adds, there have been more questions than usual about new and different ways to prepare stuffing.

Cooking locations vary, too. ``Many people cook their Thanksgiving dinner outdoors -- and eat it out also,'' says Ms. Rodriguez. This is especially popular in the Midwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast.

For side dishes, ``pheasant, meatballs, codfish cakes, and wild rabbit accompany turkey throughout the country, as do squirrel, goose, scalloped oysters, and roast pork.''

``Many traditions come from family events,'' she continues. ``One woman whose children are grown still makes dressing with hot dogs cut up in it because that's the only way her kids would eat it when they were small.''

The hot line gets all kinds of questions. ``One young bride asked if the turkey would expand like bread does when it rises. She thought her oven might be too small,'' Ms. Rodriguez recalls. ``One lady in Arkansas had her five-pound turkey in the oven 24 hours -- did we think it was done?

``Another caller wanted to know the best method for reattaching the thighs and drumsticks when they fall off. His 12-pound turkey had been in the oven since 8 a.m. the day before.''

Some callers have tried novel cooking methods. ``One lady tried solar cooking her turkey. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day so she called for help.

``We've had many calls about cooking the turkey in a brown paper bag, but we discourage it,'' Ms. Rodriguez adds. ``It's a common method but dangerous because of the likelihood of fire.''

Other people have called the talk-line for ways to cook turkey on the beach, in a camper, over a cabin fireplace, or on a hot plate. Some callers want to know how to cook a turkey in clay, others have asked about the Cajun method of cooking the bird in a large cauldron of hot fat.

The popularity of turkey breast, according to Ms. Rodriguez, is increasing across the country. There are also lots of questions about cooking half a turkey. Budget-minded people, especially the elderly, buy a big turkey and have the butcher cut it in half, she explains.

Interest in buying fresh turkeys is on the rise, too, Ms. Rodriguez notes, adding that consumers need to learn more about correct storage procedure. Because of space shortages in the refrigerator at holiday time, fresh turkeys are often not properly refrigerated.

By now the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is as much a holiday tradition as the turkey itself. Calls come from all 50 states. In 1983 England liked the idea of the hot line so much that the American Butterball line helped them establish one of their own. England's big turkey day is Christmas.

The toll-free number in the United States is 1-800-323-4848. The line is open every weekend from now to Dec. 24 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (central standard time); on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23-24, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CST); and on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CST).

The talk-line is staffed by 44 trained food professionals.

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