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Got a phone? Helpful cooking advice is on the way "Families are scattered now; no mother or grandmother around to take us by the hand."

Soggy pie crust?

Dry turkey?

Or -- even worse -- outdated cranberry sauce?

Not to worry. Help is close at hand.

It's as near as your telephone, actually. The number of culinary toll-free hotlines (as well as Web sites) grows constantly and peaks during the holidays. Many of them are also open all year round.

Just about every company in the turkey business has such a number, though some are better than others.

Honeysuckle White (1-800-810-6325), for instance, will tell you much of what you need to do while preparing the big bird. But it's automated and not much better than a Web site if you need to talk to a human being.

If you call the automated Empire Kosher number (1-800-367-4734), it does eventually suggest a number to call for personal contact. But for that you have to pay.
There is the grandmother of all Thanksgiving Day hotlines: the Butterball Line (1-800-BUTTERBALL). During more or less business hours, as well as on Thanksgiving Day, you can to talk to a genuine home economist free of charge. (An automated line operates outside business hours.)

The Home Ec-ies will answer any appeal, no matter how strange.

Sample question (Butterball swears it happened): "I'm cooking a turkey and my kitchen is on fire, what do I do?"

Answer: "Hang up and call the fire department."

You can't get any better advice than that.

Suppose your trouble is with pie crust. If you call the Crisco Pie Hotline (1-877-For Pie Tips), you get a recording. (Yes, there are too many numbers there, but it does work anyway!) And if you hang on and press 0 you get a warm body. This service is not available on Thanksgiving Day, so if you're at all anxious, make the pie a day ahead.

And what about if you're worrying about your cranberry sauce? (We all have our anxieties.)

Simply call the Ocean Spray Consumer Helpline (1-800-662-3263) during business hours and listen to a jolly New England type "grower" spiel about how great cranberries are. But stay on the line and you'll get a real person who is located right where she should be -- in Massachusetts. Ocean Spray even keeps the line open on Thanksgiving.

Sample questions: "My sauce can is dated 2004, can I use it for company?" Answer: "No. It will have lost freshness and flavor. Cranberry sauce should be used within a year." Or...

"Can I give cranberry juice to my cat for its bladder infection?" Answer: "Talk to your vet."

On a more serious note, if you're concerned about wholesomeness and health, remember the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, which works in English or Spanish (1-888-674-6854). Again, if you press 0, an expert comes on and talks to you. The line is closed on weekends but is open on Thanksgiving Day as it should be. Your taxes at work.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other hotlines -- the very number suggests how the American family has changed through the years.

Families are scattered now; no mother or grandmother around to take us by the hand. Plenty of people out there don't cook very much at all.

So this "doctor is in; please be seated" approach is more than soothing. It's probably necessary. Because it fills the void.


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