I was just about to roll out my homemade pie crust when I encountered my first problem. As I reached for a rolling pin from my cabinet, I realized I didn’t own one.
Normally, I’d just grab my shiny laptop and search for how to solve my cooking conundrum online. But the countertops in my kitchen were buried beneath a bed of flour and my fingers were heavily caked with sticky dough. It was not a very laptop-friendly environment. So instead of darting off to Google or shouting out to the social media universe for an answer, I went old-school and reached for my phone. With my cleanest knuckle, I swiped the screen to unlock it, then tapped to re-dial my most recent call: 1-877-367-7538, the Crisco Pie Hotline.
Yes, in a digital world full of Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and email inquiries, I chose to call a hotline and speak to an actual human for baking advice. And instead of listening to a recorded message with answers to frequently asked questions, I was connected with a cooking expert that gave me the personal attention I needed to deal with my crisis.
I had never attempted to bake a pie before — not even one with a pre-made pie crust. Laugh at me if you will, as many of my family members surely have, but I felt frazzled. Earlier, I had already phoned in to the hotline for tips on how to make my own batch of dough without a food processor or pastry blender like the recipe I was following recommended I use. “As long as you’re working with cold Crisco,” the affable woman said, “making the dough by hand is quite easy.” For a novice cook like me, who has never attempted any large cooking endeavor, the soft, calm advice from a live human on the other end of the line was incredibly soothing and oddly therapeutic.
Now, 45 minutes later, I needed help turning my ball of dough into a delicate crust.
After 30 seconds on hold, a pie expert joined me in my kitchen on speakerphone and walked me through the baking emergency. Panicky, I told her it was time to roll out my crust, but I couldn’t because I lacked an essential tool.
“Do you have a tall glass that you could use?” she asked calmly. “Or how about a slender glass bottle?”
I looked around at the chaos in my kitchen. “Would an empty wine bottle suffice?”
“Yes, that should work perfectly. Just make sure you rinse it under hot water and dry it off first,” she said. Her voice was so relaxing and composed that for a moment I thought I had mistakenly called in to a suicide prevention hotline. “Next, dust the outside of the bottle with a little bit of flour and use it just like you would a rolling pin.”
Okay, so it doesn’t exactly take a genius to think up a solution to my problem. I’m sure some of you knew exactly what to do. And yes, later, I saw that I could Google “how to roll pie dough without a rolling pin” in six seconds and get that answer.
In any case, after speaking with a live person on the phone, I let out a small sigh of relief. The sliced apples I’d just tossed in spices and the walnuts I finely chopped would not go to waste. And for the first time that day, I actually believed that I might be able to pull off baking a pie from scratch.
While I still had the support on the phone, I asked more questions about what to do next — how thinly to roll the dough, what temperature to bake the pie at, how to keep the crust from sticking to the pan or avoid it getting too soggy. She answered them simply and calmly, and only put me on hold once to confirm that my tiny apartment oven would cook as evenly as a normal-sized one. “Just keep your oven set to 350°F and you’ll have a perfect pie.” She encouraged me to continue building my pie and to call back should I meet any further roadblocks.
“There’s something special about being able to talk to a live person,” said Maribeth Burns, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the J.M. Smucker Company, who manages the Crisco Pie Hotline. “It’s personable.”
After my somewhat-successful pie-baking attempt, I felt accomplished, confident, and ready to move on to my next Thanksgiving dinner milestone — cooking the turkey. Although I’ve only recently mastered cooking a basic whole chicken, I figured roasting an entire turkey wouldn’t be too difficult.
I was sadly wrong. First, I needed help just deciding what bird to buy. So I reached out to Butterball, one of the nation’s largest turkey producers, for advice. Butterball has operated a holiday hotline for over 30 years, but as a so-called millennial “digital native” I chose to ask for help over Twitter first: “If I’m cooking for just a few people, how big of a turkey should I get?” I was surprised by how quickly I got a helpful response back. In less than five minutes, they tweeted at me, “Hi I would get an 8-10lb and then you will always have a few leftovers, which is always nice.” Then, a half an hour later, they followed up with an alternative option: “You could always do just a breast roast. They are about 3.5lbs and feed about 7 people.”
Following their initial advice, I purchased a small 10-pound turkey. My immediate concern was whether or not I could wash my turkey — I know there’s been a whole “Don’t Wash Your Chicken!” campaign. So I pulled my thawed turkey out of the fridge, and dialed the phone.
Emily, a home economist and turkey-cooking expert pleasantly answered and assured me that no question was a dumb question. “I wouldn’t say that just yet,” I laughed. “Not until you’ve heard mine.” She told me not to wash the bird, then continued to offer helpful tips on how to stuff it and season it, where to insert the meat thermometer, and how long to cook my turkey.
Things were running smoothly until my oven started to smoke only an hour into cooking. I must have pierced the disposable aluminum baking pan with the sharp end of my thermometer, causing juices to drip all over the bottom of my oven. I frantically redialed the turkey hotline and shortly had another expert on speakerphone.
“Don’t worry, your kitchen isn’t going to catch on fire,” she guaranteed me. “Just slide a baking sheet under the pan. It should catch up any more loose drippings.” She then guided me through inserting the meat thermometer into the breast and then the thigh, assuring me that this minor hiccup wouldn’t ruin my turkey. She was right — two hours later, I pulled a slightly overcooked, but safe-to-eat golden turkey out of the oven.
Yes, my cooking troubles are very much a minor issue in the larger scheme of things. And I know that thousands of Americans will surely be attempting this week to cook their first Thanksgiving dinner and will encounter difficulty along the way just as I did. But in the moment, struggling in my tiny studio apartment, I felt the need for someone to tell me it was okay. I was too embarrassed to call my grandmother, who would have teased more than helped. And I couldn’t call my mother: She doesn’t cook much. Nor do many of my friends. I felt profoundly alone.
This was a case where I needed more than social media could offer me. I needed a voice — a reassuring female voice to guide me through unfamiliar steps in my kitchen. Cooking by myself in my small apartment often gets lonely, and I appreciated the handholding I got from the ladies on the other end of the line.
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Butterball Turkey Talk-Line
Dial 1-800-BUTTERBALL (800-288-8372) for any and all emergencies or questions you may have about buying, preparing, or cooking your turkey. Butterball also has a very helpful online calculator you can use to plan perfect portions, and determine proper thawing and cooking times.
Call 1-877-FOR PIE TIPS (877-367-7438) for any pie-related or baking fiascos. Pie experts are waiting to help you.
Jennie-O Holiday Helpline
If you can’t get through to Butterball, you can dial 1-800-TURKEYS (800-887-5397) for any questions you have about turkey preparation.
Call 1-800-662-3263 with any cranberry-related questions or for cranberry sauce recipe advice.
Not sure if your turkey is safe to eat? Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 to find out proper temperatures to cook at.