For the cranberry hot line, a nutty time of year

According to Chyrel Malaguti, there is a common portrait of the people who call Ocean Spray's cranberry hot line in the days before Thanksgiving.

"They're frantic," says Ms. Malaguti, one of the company's customer-service agents. "They've waited until the last minute to do everything. They look at their cranberry sauce and say, 'It hasn't jelled yet. What do I do?' "

For many cooks, making cranberry sauce is about as easy as drawing a breath. Basic recipes simply say to add sugar to the cranberries, then boil them for 10 minutes.

But based on the questions and improbable scenarios that consumers share over the hot line here at Ocean Spray headquarters, the de facto cranberry capital of the world, one would think that the tiny red cranberry was no more familiar to many Americans than a moon rock.

"I think people go out and buy a bag of cranberries, and then once they're home, they stare at them and don't know what to do with them," says agent Prudence Fallon.

Americans' failure to think rationally about cooking cranberries is particularly strong around Thanksgiving, the agents say, as many cooks' tempers come to a boil.

"When you think you have heard it all, then something new always comes along," says Linda Compton, Ocean Spray's head of consumer affairs.

Ocean Spray controls about 60 percent of the cranberries sold in the US, and many consumers look to the company for specific recipes or general information about the fruit.

The number of calls mounts considerably this time of year. The company expects to receive between 1,500 to 2,000 phone calls today alone - about as much as during an average week.

If history is any indication, the 17 agents on staff here will be confronted with questions ranging from the mundane to the irredeemably bizarre.

Many inquiries are rooted in basic misconceptions. "They want to know if they can eat the cranberries raw out of the bag, or if they should peel them," says Ms. Fallon.

Several consumers ask if they can use a tiny juicer to squeeze juice straight out of the cranberry, unaware that the berries have about as much water in them as a small stone. Others mention plans to soak dehydrated cranberries in water with the hope of plumping them up for boiling.

And Americans insist that canned cranberry sauce, perhaps more than any other canned product, will last forever. Many consumers view expiration dates as a mere marketing tactic, the agents report.

"One woman said she wanted to keep rotten cranberry sauce in case of an emergency," says Lauren Collins. "I thought to myself, 'That must be some emergency.' "

But it is the more eccentric calls that quickly become the stuff of legend in this bright office, where tiny cranberry beanbags decorate the desks. Just two weeks ago, agent Jean Bartlett helped find liquid cranberry concentrate for a woman who was certain the product would save the life of her potbelly pig.

"She was thrilled. She was so happy to find it," says Ms. Bartlett. "It was an older pig," adds Ginny Meleedy.

Despite Ocean Spray's focus on cranberries, Americans often turn to the cranberry hot line for help with other facets of the Thanksgiving meal. Several callers inquire whether pumpkins are microwaveable. One man recently asked how much time he would have before his defrosted deer meat would spoil.

But in most cases, the agents are called upon to talk turkey.

"We get so many turkey calls," says Ms. Compton. "People can't get through on the Butterball 1-800 line, so they call us."

A consumer once asked Malaguti if she would recommend cooking a turkey inside a pair of pantyhose. The caller had wrongly taken the original cooking bag off the bird and needed a replacement. Malaguti was dumfounded, but supportive. "We said, 'We're not recommending it, but go for it!' "

Such acts of desperation are generally born from a state of panic that, the agents observe, most often manifests itself Thanksgiving morning.

Four years ago, Malaguti helped a caller discover how to free a turkey from her oven after she accidentally locked it inside for several hours.

"People trust Ocean Spray when there's a disaster and no one else to call," she says.

Such acts of trouble-shooting often call for creative improvisation on the agents' part. But they may be faced with even tougher challenges when it comes to another customer-service function: recipe detective work.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of consumers have asked about recipes that they only vaguely remember from their grandmother's cooking, but are entirely certain exist in a drawer in the agent's desk.

Just last week, Fallon took a call from Alice of Sarasota, Fla. Alice has called in search of recipes seven years in a row. This year, she is looking for a cranberry sauce with Jell-O and black cherries.

The agents have more than 600 recipes from which to search, and the Ocean Spray historical archive holds recipes dating back to the 1930s.

Still, the agents know that if they are unable to dig up the exact recipe, they'll be met with absolute disbelief.

"What they don't realize," says agent Sue Maltais, "is that a lot of times the grandmother added something to the sauce and didn't tell the grandkids when she did."

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