by Maggie Van Ostrand
Before girding a volunteer turkey's loins for Thanksgiving dinner at my house, I tried to relax by watching reruns of "The West Wing's" Thanksgiving episodes. In one, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), pardons a turkey, and in another, Bartlet, who knew every bit of trivia in the world, found he didn't know if turkey stuffing containing oysters could kill or maim his White House guests. And he gleefully learned he could find the solution from a Butterball Hotline (1-800-Butterball). (They told him to first cook the stuffing separately to a safe minimal internal temperature of 165 F, then stuff it into the turkey.)
While I haven't murdered or maimed any Thanksgiving Day guests, that I know of, it wasn't because I called Butterball Hotline, it was dumb luck. Well, except that one time. I guess I can tell you about it now that I have a five-year buffer zone between me and the "incident."
It was that time of year fit only for kids, husbands, and friends. For me, as cook, it was a time of planning, hard work, and head-throbbing anxiety. Long-lost people showed up at my house, including two who tracked me down through an internet search, my kids who managed to leave home without leaving, and that guy from outside Walmart who asked for money to buy food so I invited him over to eat, all turned up at the front door knowing I'm too polite to say I never invited them. Except the Walmart guy.
Several years ago, I'd been attempting to overcome the fear by planning Thanksgiving well ahead. Turkey was properly thawed, gizzard bag had been removed, all vegetables washed and ready to go, with and without toppings of nuts, cranberries or marshmallows. My secret stuffing was made and ready to go into the turkey.
While the first guests were entertaining themselves in the living room, drinks in hand, waiting to see if the next group would ring the front doorbell first or just walk in, I was ready to start the kitchen countdown. Veggies on slow simmer, pies cooling, turkey in oven. I pushed the oven button, and began to finally relax. I joined the happy chatter in the living room. Then my cousin Michael said he smelled something burning. "Not possible," I said, "Everything's well in hand." He insisted that his nose was never wrong. I humored him and went into the kitchen. I smelled it. I ran to the oven. The only light on it said "Self Clean." Unable to open the oven door, we could see through the little window. There was nothing in the roasting pan but a pyramid of ashes.
Others have called Butterball with even dumber things. They've handled millions of calls from frantic home cooks who have set their stoves on fire, dropped turkeys on the floor, and even forgotten to thaw their birds. Delish.com has listed a few:
After discovering a turkey from 1969 in his dad's freezer, an Alabama man called to ask about the best way to cook the 50 year-old bird. Butterball recommended a new turkey.
One woman, driving to Denver, asked how she could safely thaw her turkey in the open air while it was strapped to her car's roof rack. "I told her she couldn't necessarily do that safely but she really wouldn't listen, she kept saying she was going to do it anyway," said Butterball rep.
A disappointed woman called wondering why her turkey had no breast meat. After a conversation with a Talk-Line operator, it became apparent that the woman's turkey was lying on the table upside down.
One man called to tell the operator he cut his turkey in half with a chain saw and wanted to know if chainsaw oil would mess up the flavor.
"I buried my turkey in a snowbank and called Butterball to find out how to thaw it. Only now I can't find it. What should I do?"
"How do you prepare a turkey for people who don't eat meat?"
"The doorbell is ringing, everybody's here, but the turkey is still frozen solid. Can I serve it anyway?"
Times change. Back in The West Wing, a TV president pardoned a White House turkey and, today, a White House turkey may be getting ready to pardon a president.