Week in Sad Food

by Gemma Sack & Jesse Barber

published November 30, 2018


“Alexa, how do I cook a perfect turkey?”

This year, for the first time ever, you may have heard this asked at your Thanksgiving celebration. Alexa can now guide anxious chefs through the process of roasting the traditional holiday bird. But unsurprisingly, Jeff Bezos and the Amazon engineers are not turkey experts (in fact, thanks to them, you can simply buy a fully cooked turkey on Amazon Prime). Instead, Alexa’s newfound culinary talent comes from Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line. Using pre-recorded answers to frequently asked questions from the Talk-Line, the new “Butterball Alexa skill” can help you troubleshoot your turkey for the big day.

Butterball, a popular American turkey brand, created its Turkey Talk-Line in 1981, hoping to help frazzled or inexperienced cooks prepare for meals during the holiday season. Since its establishment, the Talk-Line’s staff of six female home economists (yes, that is their actual job title) has grown to over fifty trained turkey experts who take nearly 100,000 calls every holiday season, and about 10,000 on Thanksgiving Day alone.

But how do we know that the mysterious voices on the other end of the phone can provide the best solutions to our turkey-related woes? Butterball carefully selects the operators of the Talk-Line, ensuring that they have met rigorous standards of turkey-expertise. Every year, the chefs, culinary professors, food stylists, home economists, and dietitians who staff the Talk-Line must satisfactorily complete a training program called Butterball University, in which they must cook their own turkeys using seven different methods, including grilling, frying, microwaving, and multiple types of roasting.

Year after year, the most common question asked on the hotline is

       “How do I thaw my turkey?”

But operators must be able to give advice on even the most seemingly bizarre turkey-related issues — distressed chefs have called in about unconventional thawing tools (such as electric blankets and dishwashers), turkeys misplaced in snowbanks and bathtubs, and disputes between spouses about proper cooking techniques. Sue Smith, Talk-Line operator, likes to say that “you can’t stump a turkey expert” —she has failed to salvage only one struggling chef’s bird in her 20-year tenure.

But the “typical” Thanksgiving celebration does not look the same as it did in 1981 — the crop of Thanksgiving chefs is rapidly diversifying. In order to respond to these changes, Butterball has added Spanish-speaking turkey experts and male turkey experts (because apparently only men can explain to other men how to cook). And for young people, many of whom might not be in the habit of talking on the phone, Butterball has made the Talk-Line’s services accessible through live chat, text messaging, social media, and now Alexa.

However, in its attempt to (in Butterball’s own words) “meet the needs of the modern holiday cook,” the Talk-Line has losts its characteristic warmth. Alexa can calculate how long you should cook your turkey based on weight and degree of stuffing, but she is no substitute for Sue Smith, or any of the other friendly turkey experts. For a frantic chef in the midst of the holiday frenzy, what is often wanted most is not precise answers —one can get those from a cookbook, or from Google—but the emotional comfort provided by the Talk-Line expert, and the affirmation that everything is going to be okay.






The complimentary spread at the Rhode Island Democratic watch party for the 2018 midterm elections was predictably modest. There were cubes of orange cheddar cheese next to an empty space where, presumably, bread once sat, a bowl of salsa fresca with no chips in sight, and the obligatory crudité, a pile of vegetables encircling a viscous, opaque dip. There were tomatoes, celery, cucumber. I picked up an angular slice of the green vegetable and took a bite. My suspicion was confirmed. It was raw zucchini…raw zucchini.

It was almost impossible to ascertain the location of the party. It took five telephone calls and half an hour of stalking Rhode Island politicians on Twitter to learn that the secret party was open to the public at the Biltmore Hotel; it was merely not publicized. 200 attendees, largely the friends and family of politicians and campaign volunteers, stood around with drinks in hand, jovially clapping people on the back, shaking hands, and casually watching the local news coverage, much of which was being recorded in the back of this very same room. Periodically, attendees would goof around in front of the camera just to see themselves up on the big screen.

To the left of the stage hung an oversized velvet curtain. At around 9:00 PM, the Rhode Island results were announced to roars of applause and whoops from the crowd. Then, each of the notable election winners emerged, in turn, from behind the velvet curtain to a dramatic walk-up song as they arranged their families and shook all the hands in reach of the diminutive stage. They preached about job creation, civil politics, and “sticking up to the ugliness in Washington” in vague terms, mingled with the obligatory “Four more years” chant from the crowd. There was no mention of Providence’s exorbitant income inequality, third highest of any city in the country.

From the General Treasurer to the Secretary of State, the speakers were as puzzling as they were complacent and unsubstantial. Newly re-elected Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza said, “By the time we are done in four short years, we are going to be known throughout the United States of America as

the best mid-sized city

            in the entire country!”

which elicited a hum of confused cheers. It was hard to tell if this was a self-effacing joke about the size of the city or a genuine aspiration, which begs the question: what is best? The headliner of the event, Governor Gina Raimondo, took the stage as her chosen anthem, “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys, blasted out of speakers. Reminiscent of seventh grade Bar Mitzvah parties, the middle-aged crowd shrieked with glee and a pair of elderly women belted the song at the top of their lungs. The Governor (who was in fact not aflame) gave a speech to her friends and family, like many of the others, filled with thank yous, calls to action, and self-congratulation.

All the while, the starchy, green and yellow zucchini spears crowded the platter, untouched.





Personal Effects by Liby Hays