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Tales from the trenches of holiday cooking hot lines
October 31, 2007, 12:00 AM Tanya Bricking Leacj


No matter how dreadful your holiday dinner disaster story is, chances are Mary Clingman can top it.

After 27 years as one of the reassuring voices on the other end of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, she has heard just about everything. Including when things go bad in a big way.

"One of the first calls was a lady who called and said her kitchen was on fire,” Clingman recalls. "I told her to hang up and call the fire department.”

November marks the start of prime time for the operators who staff the cooking hot lines that help Americans navigate the mishaps, blunders and outright silliness sometimes involved in preparing holiday feasts.

And thanks to all those blunders, people like Robyn Sargent have great stories to tell.

Sargent is a baking instructor at the King Arthur Flour Co. in Norwich, Vt. She helped launch the company’s Baker’s Hotline in 1993.

Her favorite disaster story involves a woman who called while trying to bake bread.

Sargent says the woman described how the dough she had put in the oven to rise was oozing out the sides of her oven and gushing onto the floor in volcano-like bursts.

Turns out the woman took the recipe literally when it said add a packet of yeast. Sargent says the woman didn’t realize the recipe meant a 2 1/4-teaspoon packet, not the 1-pound package she had bought.

At the Ocean Spray Consumer Helpline, calls have ranged from odd ("Help! I can’t get the sauce out of the can!”) to weird ("Can I dye my hair with your cranberry juice?”) to disturbing ("Can I give cranberry juice to my cat for its bladder infection?”).

Speaking of cats, one caller to the Foster Farms Turkey Helpline wanted to know how to fix a turkey that the family cat had chewed holes into prior to roasting.

Foster Farms spokeswoman Teresa Lenz says the woman was urged to buy a new bird.

Then there’s Clingman’s kitty litter incident.

A caller from Georgia wanted advice from the Butterball folks on cooking a turkey inside her husband’s new gas grill.

The catch was that her husband didn’t want the grill to get dirty, so he’d filled it with kitty litter to absorb the grease.

Would it be OK to grill the turkey with the litter? No, Clingman didn’t think so.

Becky Wahlund, director of test kitchens at Land O’Lakes, says the company’s former holiday baking hot line used to get some hilarious calls, including the woman who asked whether she could substitute tartar sauce for cream of tartar.

Another caller who lived in a high-rise apartment requested high-altitude baking instructions.

The company eventually shut down the hot line after realizing most people just wanted recipes, not help.

But Wahlund says dealing with all those callers taught the company it needed to reform the way it writes its recipes.

Which is why you’ll no longer find instructions to "cream the butter and the sugar.”

Too many callers made it apparent that people didn’t understand that it meant "mix until creamy,” not "add cream,” Wahlund says.


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