Hidden deep within a nondescript office complex in the western suburbs of Chicago is the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. Since 1981, the toll-free number has been a resource for questions about preparing your Thanksgiving turkey. The first year, a team of six women answered over 10,000 phone calls. These days, the 50 staff members who work the phones and social media outlets will answer 10,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone.
It seemed like a strange anachronism that doesn’t make any sense in today’s world: But that was beside the point.
I arrived at the Talk-Line at a strange time, shortly after we elected the next president of the United States. The news was still being discussed everywhere I went, from the radio in my car to the clump of workers on break in front of the building. The election results were troubling for those of us who preferred the other candidate. I was wrestling with a lot of questions, not just about our country, but also about this Turkey Talk-Line. Why does it still exist? It seemed like a strange anachronism that doesn’t make any sense in today’s world: The internet has more information about turkeys than one person could ever know. But that was beside the point, as I was about to find out.
I’d expected the Talk-Line to be part of a larger Butterball corporate operation, but it stands alone in a suite of offices rented by the company specifically to house the call center. The interior is as nondescript as the exterior; it’s all gray cubicles, drop ceilings, and fluorescent lights. The only things distinguishing it from any of the other offices in the building are the distinctive yellow and blue Butterball branding and some large canvas-printed photos of turkey dinners hanging awkwardly on the walls. And everywhere, the smell of turkey roasting.
My hosts for the day were Carol Miller and Alice Coffey, who have worked at the Talk-Line for decades. I would come to learn that this kind of longevity is the rule, not the exception. Most of the women — there are also three men, but they are a recent innovation — have been returning to these seasonal positions for years.
Like many of their colleagues, Coffey and Miller both have degrees in food-related fields. Coffey studied food and nutrition, and heard about the Talk-Line from a friend who encouraged her to give it a try. "I loved it right away," she said. Miller studied home economics and after raising her kids, worked for a local supermarket chain. She retired from the supermarket last year but has no plans to quit the Talk-Line, where she’s returned seasonally for over 30 years. The oldest team member is 91, so she needn’t be in any rush.
Repeatedly throughout the day, both women referred to the Talk-Line as being like a sorority, a summer camp, or a family. It was evident how close-knit this group was — the women all related like old friends, easily sharing laughs and stories. At times I had to remind myself that they were working. "There are golf groups and bridge clubs. We share photographs of our grandchildren with each other," Miller said. "We keep in touch, and every October it is like a family reunion."
Sue Smith, one of the Talk-Line directors, is responsible for finding new Talk-Line staff. "Obviously you’ve got to love food," she said. "But you’ve got to love talking to people, because that’s what you’re here for, you’re here to help them. You need to be able to empathize. Sometimes you’re a counsellor between husbands and wives, between kids and parents. You really need to have that empathetic ear and be good with people." And that’s really why people continue to dial the number — they want to connect with someone.
The Talk-Line was slower than usual on the day I was there; we all hypothesized that Americans were still wrapped up in the election drama and not yet ready to think about turkey. The few who were seemed to be calling with pretty standard questions, at least from the side of the conversation I was overhearing. The encouraging and patient tone of the operators (or Talk-Line Experts, as they are called) was comforting background noise to my conversation with Coffey and Miller. We were seated in the front of the call center near a table that held a novelty inflatable turkey and a bowl of on-brand yellow and blue candies; above it was a monitor displaying a cheat sheet of common thaw and cook times. There was also a giant calendar of the month of November, a glamour shot of the perfect roast turkey covering Thursday. The room would have a very different energy then.
All of the operators are required to put in an eight-hour shift on Thanksgiving. It is ironic that these experts on executing the perfect holiday meal never get to spend it at home. Despite this, Miller said it is her favorite day at the line, and Coffey agreed. "It’s a lot of fun. The energy is really up and everyone’s in a good mood. And you really are saving situations. Because on Thanksgiving Day is when everyone really is in crisis. That’s when you can really help them through it." Miller added, smiling, "It’s when you’ll hear: Thanks for saving us, Turkey Lady!"
"What people want at Thanksgiving is tradition, it’s just the people cooking who want something different."
The women have seen trends come and go throughout the years. Turkeys have been steamed, grilled, brined, shrouded in cheesecloth, deep-fried, and spatchcocked. They’ve even been microwaved, which was a popular call topic in the early days when Americans were getting their first microwaves. Miller assured me that this is not as bad as it sounds. "Honest to gosh, it’s not bad. For your eyes, you have to put a browning sauce on it. We use some paprika, butter, and Kitchen Bouquet. And it doesn’t look bad. It gives it sort of a natural browned color. And it’s very moist. You couldn’t really tell."
The trends don’t faze Miller or Coffey, and they’re happy to help with whatever cooking method you prefer — or all of them. "They’re watching all of the TV shows, reading all the magazines, and they want to combine all of the methods and are totally confused," Coffey laughed. "They want to brine it and then smoke it and then fry it… people are a hoot."
As part of their training (an event in October called Butterball University), the Talk-Line experts prepare and sample turkeys cooked using all of these methods. An unexpectedly professional test kitchen, across the hall from the call center, is equipped with multiple home ovens and accommodates the training. It's also where I found Phyllis Kramer, a relative newbie in her 10th year at the Talk-Line. She had prepared me an entire turkey, which explained the wonderful smell following me around all day. Kramer used Butterball’s recommended pan-roasting method — and advocated for keeping things simple. "What people want at Thanksgiving is tradition, it’s just the people cooking who want something different," she said.
The turkey emerged from the oven the way we always wish they would, well-tanned and perfectly formed. It looked like the turkey on the calendar. I don’t know if it was the post-election funk lifting, the unexpected delight of sharing Thanksgiving dinner in a strange office building, or better eating through science, but it was one of the most delicious turkeys I have ever eaten.
Over our plates of turkey, we discussed the calls the women have fielded over the years. There was the family who called to complain the turkey had no breasts (it was upside down!), the person who wanted to know how to give their turkey bikini-like tan lines, or the man who cooked the turkey in the plastic bag it came in (surprise: it melted). But it's the serious situations that the women value most and where the rewards of their work seem most evident — young newlyweds hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, recent immigrants eager to get the details of this new tradition just right, people whose partners died, leaving them to cook the meal solo for the first time. All of these human moments somehow ended with a phone call to an 800 number printed on shrink-wrapped poultry.
It reminded me of something that is easy to forget right now: that there are people like Miller and Coffey everywhere in this country. The women of the Talk-Line don’t care if you bought a Butterball or a competitor's brand; if you hunted the turkey yourself or bought it from a new-school butcher shop in your hip, urban neighborhood. They treat us all with kindness and when you call for help, they answer.
I left the Talk-Line holding a Ziploc bag full of leftover turkey. The elevator in the building was glass and inside two strangers were discussing the election. I’d forgotten. As we descended, I looked out on a landscape of dull office buildings huddled around a conspicuously man-made pond. In the distance: strip malls and an expressway. Big, weird, wonderful America.