11 Secrets of Butterball's Turkey Talk-Line Operators

Butterball
Butterball

Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line started small. Their first holiday season in 1981, a team of six home economists answered 11,000 turkey-related questions from cooks across America. Things have grown a great deal since then: More than 50 phone operators now work out of the Butterball office in Naperville, Illinois—about a 30-minute drive from Chicago—and they answer 10,000 calls on Thanksgiving day alone. That’s not to mention all the texts, emails, and instant chat messages they also handle.

We spoke to three talk-line operators to find out what it takes to become a turkey expert and why they give up their own holidays to help others avoid disastrous dinners.

1. THEY NEED AT LEAST A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE IN A FOOD-RELATED FIELD.

The talk-line operators don’t call themselves “experts” for nothing. To be considered for the job, they need to have completed at least four years of a food-related program. Turkey talk-line supervisors Janice Stahl and Carol Miller both have degrees in home economics. Nicole Johnson, a talk-line coordinator, has degrees in nutrition dietetics and public health. There are also lots of registered dieticians on staff, and some of the other employees have worked as chefs or food stylists.

2. CONNECTIONS HELP WHEN IT COMES TO GETTING HIRED.

Positions on the talk-line are never formally advertised—only by word of mouth—so it helps to know someone who works there. Stahl says she found out about the job from her mother-in-law, who worked as a talk-line operator for more than 10 years. “It kind of takes a little bit of a connection to get in,” she says. “It’s a hot little commodity job.” In a similar vein, Miller found out about the job from a neighbor, and Johnson learned about it from a former teacher.

3. THE OPERATORS HAVE STAYING POWER.

Once someone does land a job, they tend to stick around a while. Many of Butterball's turkey experts have worked at the talk-line for over 10 years. "It's not a job where people really leave," Stahl told Patch in 2015. "We may hire one person a year."

4. NEW TRAINEES HAVE TO COMPLETE “BUTTERBALL UNIVERSITY.”

"Then and now" photos of Butterball's kitchen
Butterball

During their first three years on the talk-line, all Butterball “freshmen” have to complete a one-day training seminar, dubbed Butterball University, at the start of each season. They’re assigned a specific method of turkey preparation, and spend the day cooking in the Butterball office kitchen. Butterball U attendees have tested out every possible appliance, from deep fryers to charcoal grills to sous vides.

“At the end of the day we’re looking at 10 or 12 turkeys that have been cooked in all these different methods,” Miller says. “Then we compare the appearance of the turkey, we compare time, we compare the juices that are in the bottom of the pan—Is there a lot of juice? Is it brown juice?” That way, “when the phones start ringing or the texts come in, you have actually visualized it," she says.

All of the experts also have to complete “advanced training” each year, which covers Butterball’s products and provides a refresher course on how to operate the phone and computer systems. (The computers are used to keep a record of the type of questions received, which are sometimes discussed in future training sessions.) New this year is a system that allows callers to hang up and have an operator call them back, instead of being put on hold. The wait can be short or long, depending on how many callers they have that day, and how chatty they are. "Sometimes the call will vary from 30 or 45 seconds to 30 to 45 minutes," Johnson says.

5. THEY HEAR ALL KINDS OF CONFESSIONS.

Because the talk-line operators are so sweet, affable, and non-judgmental, many callers feel comfortable telling them all kinds of personal details. “We are kind of like a confession hotline,” Stahl says. “We’ll get the husband on one line and the wife on the other because there’s been a dispute about what temperature the oven should be.”

One year, a new bride called into the hotline in a panic. She was nervous about cooking for her in-laws and couldn’t tell whether the turkey was done. They could barely hear her whispering into the phone, and when they asked her why she was speaking so softly, she replied, “I’m in the hallway closet.”

Another time, a man wanted to propose to his girlfriend by placing a ring inside the turkey, then cooking it. Miller, who took that call, advised him against it. "At the time I was worried about food safety and the romantic moment! Crunching down on a diamond—either big or small—could have been a problem for the bride or whoever found the ring," she explains. “I convinced him it would be just as dramatic if he took the ring, got a piece of ribbon, and tied it on a drumstick and then brought the turkey into the gathering and proposed that way.” This happened in the mid-’80s, and Miller still wonders what happened to them, and whether the woman said yes. “By now they could have kids and grandkids, and I can just imagine grandpa telling that story.”

6. THEY SHARE THEIR TURKEY MISTAKES WITH CALLERS.

Two talk-line hosts are shown answering calls at their desks in 1988
Butterball

Some of the talk-line operators have had a few turkey mishaps of their own, and they'll share these personal stories with callers to let them know they’re not alone. “We’re all human. Everybody knows somebody that’s left that little treasure bag in the wishbone cavity of the turkey,” Miller says.

One time, Miller had an extra-large turkey but didn’t have a suitable pan to hold it, so she used a cookie sheet instead. “That was not a good idea because I spent I don’t know how much time bailing [the juices] out of the cookie sheet so that it wouldn’t go out and over the pan and into the oven,” she says. Another time, she “burned the heck out of a turkey” on a charcoal grill.

Stahl has a similar story. Once, after moving into a new home, she bought a turkey before checking to see if the oven worked. It didn’t, as she discovered on Thanksgiving day. So they ordered pizza instead.

7. THEIR CALLERS TRY TO THAW TURKEYS IN SOME PRETTY STRANGE PLACES.

Pools, bathtubs, dishwashers, jacuzzis—all have been used in attempts to thaw turkeys. One dad was bathing his twin kids and decided to put the turkey in the tub with them. Another family was having a large reunion at a hotel, and plopped 10 turkeys into the bathtub to thaw. “Picture the maid coming in and seeing that,” Miller says.

Turkeys have also been stored in some creative places when freezer space is lacking. Operators have heard from callers who left their turkeys in the trunk, only to discover that the weather warmed up the next day and ruined them. In states where it starts snowing in November, it’s not unusual for people to leave their turkeys outside in a snowbank. One year, someone did this and called into the hotline because they wanted to know how to find it. “The Midwest stories are the best,” Stahl says.

8. THEY CAN TELL YOU HOW TO MICROWAVE A TURKEY.

Butterball’s talk-line operators are trained in all methods of turkey preparation, including microwaves. After all, things go wrong and ovens stop functioning, so they need to be capable of guiding callers through the next-best-case scenario. In 2005, they got tons of calls from people living in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes. The shelters had microwaves but no ovens, and they wanted to know whether they could still cook a proper Thanksgiving meal.

“You can do it, but it’s gotta be about 12 pounds or less,” Stahl says. “You can even stuff it, stick it in the microwave, and we can walk you through all the steps. It works and it actually tastes really good. You wouldn’t know the difference.” The presentation, however, isn’t as nice as a turkey cooked in an oven. “It’s not pretty when it comes out of the microwave. That’s the only thing,” Stahl says.

9. THEY GET ASKED TURKEY-RELATED QUESTIONS EVEN WHEN THEY'RE OFF-DUTY.

While many of the turkey experts proudly wear a jacket with Butterball’s Talk-Line logo on the left side, they also know the risks. Namely, if they’re going to be leaving the house while wearing it, they should ensure they have plenty of time to talk turkey. “If you ask everybody in [Butterball’s office] on Thanksgiving day if they’ve ever been stopped somewhere out of the house with their Butterball jacket on and asked a question, I’m sure they all would say yes,” Miller says. She’s been stopped at the library, at soccer games, at Home Depot, and at the grocery store, so she always has to be on top of her game.

Stahl says she was at the grocery store when “some lady came after me in aisle three.” The woman didn’t know how to cook a turkey or even which aisle carried them, so Stahl sat down with her at a coffee shop inside the store and explained how it’s done—from start to finish. She didn’t mind helping, but conceded, “A grocery store is never where you want to wear a Butterball coat.”

10. THEY UNSUCCESSFULLY PETITIONED FOR A THANKSGIVING TURKEY EMOJI.

Butterball’s turkey experts launched a change.org petition last year to get Unicode, the leading authority on emojis, to introduce a cooked turkey icon. When responding to questions by text, the turkey experts sometimes throw in an emoji to make it more friendly and festive. However, they weren’t satisfied with the live turkey emoji because, as Butterball’s longest-standing talk-line operator Marge Klindera explained in a promotional video, “If your turkey looked like this, even we can’t help you.” Unfortunately, support was somewhat lacking—they got a little over 7500 signatures—and they never received their Thanksgiving emoji. “I think it might take a couple years to get the emoji,” Johnson says.

11. THEY DELAY THEIR OWN THANKSGIVING TO HELP YOU "HOST LIKE A BOSS."

Butterball’s turkey experts are scheduled to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving day (and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve), which means they have no choice but to delay their own holiday celebrations. When it’s time for lunch, they order soup to help soothe their throats, since their voices are often hoarse by the end of the day. They don’t seem to mind one bit, though.

“All of us love to do this, and the really funny thing that people are kind of surprised to hear is that we actually all love to be there on Thanksgiving day because that’s the day when people need the most help,” Stahl says. “Those are the panicked calls that come in, like ‘I have a frozen turkey and it’s Thanksgiving morning. What am I going to do?’”

The rewarding nature of the job and the countless human connections they’ve formed are why so many talk-line operators keep coming back year after year. Johnson says the job is “exhausting in one way, but you still feel really good” for having helped save people from “turkey trauma.” So if you have a burning question about your forthcoming turkey feast, go ahead and give them a ring at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. They’d be happy to help.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

iStock
iStock

As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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