Need Turkey-Cooking Advice? USDA Has 'Moms' Standing By
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 23, 2006; Page A37
The eight people sitting on the basement level of a Beltsville complex are talking turkey all day long. Sometimes, they are called the moms of the federal government.
On Monday, Maribel Alonso, a food expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was on the phone with a woman fretting that her one-day-old turkey would spoil before Thanksgiving. Turkeys stay fresh for only a day or two, Alonso warned. The woman, lamenting having bought the bird so early, asked, "Why did I do this?"
"I'm sorry," Alonso said sympathetically. Then she offered advice: Cook the turkey today and refrigerate it with the juices, keep it covered in ice in the refrigerator, or put it in the freezer for a few hours every day until the day before cooking it.
The Agriculture Department runs a meat hotline -- 888-674-6854 -- to call with questions about food safety, and it is Alonso and several other information specialists who answer those calls. This Thanksgiving season, they have fielded thousands of questions about how to prepare turkey and other holiday foods. The exchanges are often practical, sometimes humorous and occasionally moving.
People can call at any time to hear automated answers to common questions, and they can reach specialists from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Today, representatives are available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. People can also visit the department's Web site, called Ask Karen, at http://www.askkaren.gov.
The specialists will respond to about 400 questions a day this week, and half that number the rest of the year.
There are questions about deep-fried turkeys, electric-roasted turkeys, oven-cooked turkeys. Callers want to know how long a turkey can safely be kept in a freezer, the safest way to defrost a turkey, whether it's safe to stuff the bird the day before, how long leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator and other Thanksgiving-related ponderables.
Several specialists have worked for the hotline for more than a decade. They undergo a two-week training program and receive a 150-page turkey manual, but their experience comes from their backgrounds as dieticians, food technologists and home economists.
Diane Van has been a specialist at the hotline for 20 of its 21 years and now oversees the project. She said the Thanksgiving meal is about more than cooking meat -- it is about bringing together families, and that is one of the reasons she enjoys the job. "So often people don't get to talk one on one with someone in the federal government," Van said. "We give them as much time as they need to answer their questions."
posted by Steve @ 1:56:00 AM