Remember the fictional television show “The West Wing,” with United States President Jed Bartlet?
The award-winning drama first aired in the fall of 1999, and I think it ran for about seven seasons. For some reason, I didn’t see much of the program during that time, and I’m certainly no expert on the various stories and themes of the show. But one episode that I happened to catch years ago stands out.
President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, has a brief conversation with his aide, Charlie (Dule’ Hill) describing how he and a family member were disagreeing about how to properly fix stuffing for Thanksgiving.
The President says something to the effect that there should be a hotline manned with experts that you can call with questions about how to properly fix turkey and all of the trimmings for Thanksgiving.
Charlie replies that there is: the Butterball Hotline.
President Bartlet, as I recall, was taken aback by this bit of info at first, but eventually dialed up the hotline from the Oval Office to get his questions answered.
Yes, the most powerful man in the world calling the Butterball Hotline is all make believe, in this instance.
But this scene of “The West Wing” demonstrates how this special method to directly communicate with experts prepared to answer a vast array of questions about proper turkey preparation has become an institution since this special phone line was created by Butterball in 1981.
Butterball deems this service to be a “talk-line,” but I think panicked cooks trying to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for a house filled with guests likely prefer the hotline description.
It all began in 1981, when six home economists worked the phones that holiday season to answer about 11,000 turkey-cooking questions. Since then, the Turkey Talk-Line has grown, both in number of calls answered and experts responding.
Open every November and December, more than 50 experts answer more than 100,000 questions from households across the United States and Canada.
From late-night talk shows to top news publications, Butterball Turkey Talk-Line expert advice is shared far and wide, helping hosts feel confident in the kitchen and pull off a successful Thanksgiving year after year.
It also shows how the Butterball Hotline has become as much of a holiday institution in the United States as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Naturally, if someone as intelligent as President Jed Bartlet needed the services of the Butterball Hotline, you can imagine us common folk have needed lots of help over the years, too. We Americans (and Canadians) have sought advice that ranges from bizarre to laugh-out-loud funny.
The hotline is open from early November to the day before Christmas and receives more than 100,000 questions per year. But, not surprisingly, the volume of questions peaks on Thanksgiving Day, when the group answers more than 12,000 calls, Sue Smith, co-director of Butterball’s Turkey Talk-line, told USA TODAY Network.
“It’s probably the most fun day to work, too. We all look forward to it,” said Smith, who has worked the phones for 16 years.
At the conclusion of each holiday season, Butterball asks workers to recount memorable calls. Here are a few from over the years the company shared with USA TODAY Network:
• A mother returned home from work to find her husband thawing a frozen turkey in the bathtub while simultaneously washing up the kids. “The kids were like, ‘The water’s cold!’ because, you know, it’s a frozen turkey,” Smith said.
• A woman called the Talk-Line whispering her questions. When asked to speak up, the newlywed explained she was hiding in the closet from her mother-in-law, whom she was trying to impress.
• A young man hosting his first Thanksgiving called the Talk-Line while in a grocery store. A turkey expert stayed on the phone as he walked the aisle, advising him of all the items he’d need to buy.
• A landlord called panicked because his oven was too small to cook a turkey. He eventually was able to “rent” one from a tenant for $25. He thought he’d have to interrupt them every 10 minutes to baste it but called the Talk-Line to learn that Butterball turkeys come pre-basted.
• A woman lost power one hour into cooking her turkey and called the Talk-Line. The hotline talked her through transferring her turkey to her gas grill to continue cooking. What accounted for the outage? The caller’s neighbor had crashed into a power line while hang gliding.
But not all calls are quite that dramatic.
“How do I thaw my turkey?” is the most asked question, according to Smith. One way is to put it in your refrigerator several days before Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or whatever day you plan to serve the bird). It takes one day for every 4 pounds, Smith said. But if it’s too late for that approach, the fastest way is to thaw it in water.
“You can soak it in cold water, in the original wrapper, breast side down in your sink. Submerge it in your sink and change the water every 30 minutes. It takes about 30 minutes per pound,” Smith said.
And as for that frozen turkey in the bathtub? It wasn’t a total loss. The turkey was still in its plastic wrapper and frozen, so the family was able to thaw it in the sink and cook it, according to Smith.