The woman's family was too small to eat a whole turkey. Would a recipe for stuffed turkey work with little Cornish hens?
The turkey experts at Butterball's now-famous toll-free turkey hot line didn't know anything about the lesser fowl, so the woman called McCormick & Co.'s 1-800 spice line for some sage advice.
The full-time spice advisers who answer the phone at McCormick's hot line say they are getting peppered with questions about holiday meals these days.
About 250 times a day, more than double the daily average of calls this summer, McCormick's spice experts give cooks answers like this:
No, you can't use the turkey stuffing recipe with Cornish hens. If you are making stuffing outside the bird you have to reduce the amount of seasoning.
The boom in calls to McCormick's advice line has been dramatic. Up until four years ago, McCormick customers who wanted advice had to call the company's regular line.
As the requests for spice advice grew from hundreds to thousands, McCormick installed its 1-800-MEAL-TIP (1-800-632-5847) hot line.
But now the flow of questions -- 3,000 calls and almost as many letters during normal months -- is so great McCormick keeps four spice advisers and one supervisor busy year-round.
Ann Kruger, who has been with the toll-free hot line since its inception, spent yesterday looking up unusual spices in the bible of cooking, "Larousse Gastronomique."
She signed up dozens of callers for the company's Spice Society, a kind of spice fan club that sends out free recipes and cooking tips to members every three months.
She mollified customers distressed with McCormick's new plastic bottle caps. (The double-hinged shake-and-pour top hasn't worked very well, so McCormick is redesigning it.)
And she calmed down cooks nervous about preparing a big meal.
"A lot of times, people have their own answers, they just want reassurance, that it is going to come out all right," Ms. Kruger said.
She said she has also prevented some big cooking mistakes.
Some people figure that since one package of McCormick seasoning
makes a good gravy for dinner, 50 packages ought to make a great gravy for a banquet, she said.
It doesn't work. Many of McCormick's recipes can be doubled. But things just don't work right when multiplied 50 or even 10 times.
Customers have grown so reliant on help lines like McCormick's that the spice advisers at the Hunt Valley office have developed a following, said Nancy Zeunges, who has been a spice adviser for 2 1/2 years.
She said she picked up her phone one day recently to hear a man say: "Hi! Remember me? I called you last year."
Men now make up about one-fourth of the callers, Ms. Zeungessaid.
Besides asking questions about McCormick's products, callers often need help cooking for someone on a restricted diet, or want advice on what appetizer goes well with roast beef, the advisers say.
One of the most popular questions, the advisers said, is: What are the contents of McCormick's pumpkin pie spice?
If you want to make your own pumpkin pie spice from scratch, McCormick's advisers recommend these proportions: 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of ginger, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of cloves and 1/4 teaspoon of allspice for each 9-inch pie.