If you want, you can call Carol Miller a Thanksgiving turkey fairy godmother. After all, plenty of people have called her that over the years, in addition to "turkey angel,” and “Superwoman of turkey information.” And if she happened to pick up when you called up Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line, you’d probably say the same thing.
For the past 33 years, Miller’s worked the Talk-Line, a dedicated hotline where stumped cooks call in and ask experts literally every question they have about preparing Thanksgiving dinner. If this is the first you're hearing of it, yes, it's as magical as it seems: Every year from Nov. 1–Dec. 24, a group of 50 turkey aficionados, including Miller, fill a room at a Butterball corporate office in Naperville, Illinois, waiting for you to call, text, or email them with your questions and concerns.
And boy, do the people call in. Each year, more than 100,000 people reach out to Butterball to ask them everything from how to thaw a 15-pound frozen turkey in an hour (you can’t), to how to propose by cooking an engagement ring into the stuffing (it’s not advised, but more on that later). Miller herself often takes 12 calls in 15 minutes, and on past Thanksgivings, has fielded a couple hundred calls during her 12-hour shift.
After all of those years and interactions, she’s learned a lot about turkeys, people, and people who act like turkeys. I recently spoke her to find out her best turkey tips, her most memorable moments on the line, and why the Talk-Line is still going strong after 36 years. Hearing her endearing anecdotes about her colleagues and animated descriptions on how to keep a turkey hot until mealtime, I started to get what the hype was about. It's not just a throwback or a marketing gimmick — it's a lifeline, and Miller is a deeply talented coach. Something about her deep knowledge base mixed with her preternaturally calm, kindly demeanor reminded me of a favorite aunt, one who could — maybe, someday, far into the future — make me feel like I, too, could successfully cook a turkey.
Butterball introduced its Turkey Talk-Line in 1981, and Miller joined the team three years later, at the suggestion of a neighbor who was working the line. At the time, Miller was raising her children and not getting much professional use out of her degree in home ec education. "I said ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,' because it was a great way to get back into the profession," she said. "I never would've guessed that that first one would add up to 32 more of them."
None of the 50 people on the Turkey Talk-Line are full-time Butterball employees. Instead it’s basically an all-star roster of food experts — chefs, recipe developers, registered dietitians, and more. As a new employee, Miller got the same training that all new Talk-Liners do: She attended Butterball University. Miller came into the job knowing the basics of cooking, like everyone else, but without the knowledge of the alpha and omega of turkey prep. That's where Butterball U comes in. The training ensures that the staff knows exactly how to answer every question that comes through on the line.
"Our brand-new staff members go to Butterball University, which is a daylong training where each of the students get a turkey that they prepare from start to finish," Miller said. "They have to take the turkey out of the wrapper, put it into the pan, pop it into the oven, test for doneness, and carve at the end."
Each student, of course, has a different method of cooking; some use convection ovens, some love roasting racks, others put theirs in the microwave...the list goes on. “At end of day, we line them up in a kind of a turkey beauty contest, and each person gets to talk about their experience. And then we taste all of them! By the time Nov. 1 comes around, we’re all geared up," Miller added.
“I envisioned that someone was sitting in their kitchen, holding the phone, and doing dishes. That made me feel more at ease, it feels more like talking to a friend or a coworker.”
On her first day, Miller was nervous. “I definitely had butterflies fluttering around in my stomach,” she said. It didn’t take long, though, for her to realize she was just having a one-on-one conversation with the people who called in, on a topic she was pretty comfortable with. “I envisioned that someone was sitting in their kitchen, holding the phone, and doing dishes or something like that. That made me feel more at ease. I’ve always tried to their envision their face in my mind, so it feels more like talking to a friend or a coworker.”
In the time since she started, a lot has changed. When she first started, microwaves — big, huge ones that took up a whole counter — were all the rage, and everyone was calling in to ask how to use them on Thanksgiving. These days, Miller said, the hot new gadgets lighting up the Talk-Line are Instant Pots and air fryers. Still, though, many of the questions remain constant. “Some basic questions on things like buying and thawing turkeys, figuring out how to roast them and how to tell if they’re done, how long you can keep leftovers, and how to store them — those don’t change much,” Miller said.
When Miller and the crew are working the Turkey Talk-Line, they aren’t in their homes, which she said many people assume. Instead, they all sit in a designated room “the size of two basketball courts” in a Butterball office. Armed with a headset, a computer, and a digital database of all things turkey, they take on all of the calls, texts, and emails for 12 hours a day, every day, for almost two straight months. The 1-800-BUTTERBALL (1-800-288-8372) line is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT for most of the season, but on Thanksgiving Day, everyone reports for duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT. After that, they all go home, and anyone with a turkey-mergency is SOL.
The turkey-mergencies that come through before Thanksgiving are almost always related to thawing, Miller said. You know that feeling when your mom asked you to take the chicken out of the freezer, and then you hear her pull into the driveway an hour later and realize you never took the freakin’ chicken out? Imagine having that feeling on Thanksgiving, just hours before a tableful of hungry family members arrive, and you can get a sense of the kinds of situations and emotions Miller has to deal with. Of course, she has the answer for that particular problem.
For every 10 phone calls about how to carve a turkey, she said, there’s one from someone who store-bought their whole meal who wants to know where they can buy a turkey-smelling air freshener.
“A 25-pound turkey could take 5–6 days to thaw, and that often befuddles people who think they only need a few hours to do it,” she said. “But you can successfully thaw a turkey in a few hours, and that’s using the cold-water method: putting your turkey in a big laundry tub or picnic cooler full of cold water breast side down, with the wrapping still on. Change out the water every 30 minutes or so, and estimate that it’ll take about 30 minutes to thaw for each pound of turkey.” See? She really does know everything.
Some turkey thaw fails have no easy answer, of course. Often, someone will frantically call in saying they asked their spouse or child or whomever to put the turkey in the fridge to thaw, only to find it sitting, leaking spoiled fluids, on top of the fridge days later. “I always say they should try to run out and get a new turkey, but usually, a little humor goes a long way,” she said. “Sometimes, I joke and say they should start a new family tradition where they eat the pie first to give the turkey time to cook!”
Humor certainly comes in handy when Miller gets the inevitable out-of-left-field phone call. For every 10 phone calls about how to carve a turkey, she said, there’s one from someone who store-bought their whole meal who wants to know where they can buy a turkey-smelling air freshener. Sometimes, she said, people even ask where they can get a turkey costume.
Her most memorable call came during one of her first years working the line. A man wanted to propose to his girlfriend by stirring a diamond ring into the stuffing, putting it into the turkey, roasting it, and then...“I don’t know what he expected to happen when it made it to the table,” Miller said. “That was nothing I’ve learned in Butterball U.” Miller suggested he tie the ring to a drumstick instead and set it in front of her, but she never found out what he ended up doing. “I think about that every year,” she said. “If she said yes and everything went smoothly — I imagine their adult children and grandchildren at dinner together, telling the story of when grandma and grandpa got engaged over turkey.”
"I imagine their adult children and grandchildren at dinner together, telling the story of when grandma and grandpa got engaged over turkey."
Those kinds of human interactions are hard to forget, even when you’re taking hundreds of phone calls. These days, though, not all of the queries come in on the phone, shouted over the cacophony of family and kitchen sounds. Butterball has an email address, a text line, and social media open for questions, and while Miller doesn’t think these have led to a decrease in the volume of calls, she does appreciate the new avenues.
"When my voice is wearing out, I don’t mind taking a couple of emails," she said. "And sometimes, watching a video is better, because you can see with your own eyes how to carve a turkey instead of talking to me.” But for questions about things like food safety, she always recommends calling. Besides, calling is her preferred method, anyway.
Miller attributes the Talk-Line’s longevity to her and her colleagues’ genuine know-how. After all, what’s better than having someone’s real-life voice giving you great cooking advice? “People are always amazed that they get a real person, especially when they call on Thanksgiving Day,” Miller said. “All they have to do is hit one number to do it; they’re used to a complicated phone system."
And even in the age of Google searches and YouTube tutorials on how to deep-fry your turkey, there’s nothing quite like having a human voice talk you down from a turkey-induced panic in real time, like a culinary therapist. Sure, the internet is nice when we don’t want to have to pick up a phone, but there’s no good replacement for someone personally telling you you’re not about to ruin Thanksgiving for everyone. “There’s nothing better than when someone calls on Thanksgiving Day and you can tell you’re not just on the phone with that one person, but with a house full of people,” she said. “When you hear everyone say, ‘Yay!’ in the background when you tell them the turkey sounds like it’s done, that’s a great feeling.”
On days when the calls are few and far in between, Miller said, the Talk-Liners chat like friends. She’s one of the longest-serving ones, but many others have been there for five or ten years. “I know when all of their children and grandchildren were born,” she said. "We're friends, so we talk about what's going on in lives, sometimes share what the last call was about, and how they answered it. Plus, everyone’s a good cook, and they bring in cookies and things like that for break time.”
“When you hear everyone say, ‘Yay!’ in the background when you tell them the turkey sounds like it’s done, that’s a great feeling.”
Miller may be the turkey whisperer on the phone, but she hasn’t actually cooked a bird on Thanksgiving in the past 33 years. Instead, she's started a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving — cooking the turkey and all — on the Saturday or Sunday after, like many people who work Thanksgivings do. "It's kind of ironic that I've become this turkey guru, and I'm not even cooking one on Thanksgiving!" she said.
But Miller doesn’t mind working through one of her favorite holidays. She's become such a Talk-Line legend that she's appeared on morning TV shows as its unofficial spokesperson. Until she retired two years ago, she worked in a local grocery store in the deli department, making cheese and party trays, and, she said with a laugh, “slicing a lot of turkey.” She’s enjoying her retirement, especially because it gives her more time to spend with her five grandchildren. But when each November rolls around, “it’s really a hoot to come back the last few months of the year and talk turkey for a while.” 🍗