CHICAGO — It's not easy preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. First you have to thaw it. Then you have to scrape out its innards and plop it in a roasting pan. Blink and you might overcook it. And if you're not careful, your chihuahua might crawl inside the bird to have a look.
That's what happened to a Kentucky woman last year. Unable to free her pet from the holiday's traditional dinner, she made a frantic telephone call. Not to the police, mind you, or even the vet. She called the Butterball Turkey Talk Line.
For 17 years, the Illinois-based Butterball Foods Co. has operated a toll-free number dedicated to addressing the concerns of turkey chefs throughout North America.
The hot line, which is open on Thanksgiving Day and throughout the holiday season, is staffed by 48 dietitians, nutritionists, and home economists. Each year, they'll handle about 200,000 calls.
Most people want to know how long they should cook their turkeys. Some inquire if it's OK to grill the bird or dunk it in a deep fryer. Others need more basic tutelage.
"I'm wondering if you can help me," a West Coast caller once asked. "I soaked my turkey in bleach and I'm having trouble scrubbing it off."
For hot-line staffers, it's all in a day's work.
"Thanksgiving is such an important tradition, and the turkey is a big part of it," says Mary Clingman, a 13-year veteran of the Butterball situation room. "When people have a question or a problem, it's reassuring to hear a calm and independent voice."
Each Thanksgiving, Ms. Clingman rises before dawn and fumbles into her business suit. She climbs inside her red Honda Civic and drives through the empty streets of her suburban Chicago neighborhood to a nondescript building at the edge of Butterball's corporate campus.
Once there, she'll flip on her computer, arrange the roasting schedules on her desk, don her headset, and set to work. She won't return home until 2 p.m., just in time to help her family put the finishing touches on their own belated feast.
Since its inception in 1981, Butterball specialists like Clingman have counseled more than 2 million people. In two years, nearly a million more have logged onto Butterball's Internet site.
This year, the company offers callers a 72-page recipe book for $2.50, and its upgraded Website contains a feature called "Butterball University" that offers detailed cyber-seminars on everything from thawing to carving.
Although the hot line is open through November and December, Thanksgiving is by far its busiest day. On her shift alone, Clingman says, the hot line will handle as many as 8,000 calls. The volume has increased over the years, she continues, because people don't cook as much as they used to.
"Our jobs," she says, "are definitely safe here."
She's not kidding. Last year, a long-haul trucker called to inquire how he might go about cooking a turkey on his engine block. One novice chef asked if she should remove the wrapper and yellow plastic netting from her Butterball before popping it in the oven. A nervous Georgian called the hot line on Thanksgiving Day to help plan next year's meal. And one breathless caller admitted he'd spent the morning chasing his family's dinner around the backyard with a fishing net.
In the midst of preparing her first Thanksgiving meal, an Oklahoma woman called the hot line quite by accident. An anonymous benefactor had left the number on her beeper.
THEN there was the retired Floridian who dialed the hot line for turkey grilling tips from a cellular phone - while waiting to tee off from the 14th hole of a golf course.
Clingman says she'll never forget a call from one young man who'd taken it upon himself to cook a turkey for a host of college friends. He'd prepared the bird perfectly, but forgotten to buy a roasting pan. As a substitute, he decided to use a cookie sheet.
"That was frustrating," Clingman remembers. "The drippings ran all over the oven and filled the kitchen with smoke."
The "soot" chef, it turned out, was her son.
Although she spends most of her holiday counseling frantic people on the fine points of giblet removal, Clingman says it's not a big sacrifice. Her husband, Kyle, and her two children pitch in, and they always manage to eke out their own traditional dinner.
Besides, she adds, helping people is what Thanksgiving is all about.
"Even if I had to work from 6 a.m. to midnight, I think I'd still do it," Clingman says. "You can tell when someone is genuinely grateful, and some of those calls just make your whole season.
"With proper planning and some good advice along the way," Clingman continues, "anybody can have a Thanksgiving that's wonderful."
Somewhere in Kentucky, there's a safe and happy chihuahua to prove it.
* Butterball's hot line is: 1-800-323-4848. The Internet address is: www.butterball.com