The Turkey Handlers


Thanksgiving Menu, George Elbert Burr, Smithsonian American Art Museum


Americans eat over two hundred million turkeys a year. Preparing them for purchase is hard, often dangerous, work, and Willie Levi did it for decades. His obituary, in The Economist, describes his labor:

Increasingly he was yelled at, called lazy, and told that he should get off his black butt and lift weights. Punishments came thick and fast: stand in the corner, go to your room, no TV, walk round the gym till supper time. The schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was overrun with mice and roaches, which fell from the ceiling as he ate. Mould grew on his clothes. He broke his kneecap, but had to work on. Two men ran away, and one of them was found frozen dead in a ditch; for a time the building was padlocked.

Mr. Levi, who was mentally disabled, “went on with the work. It was a long way back home, and possibly no one would know him any more.” He worked twelve-hour days and received $65 a month.

It was not until 2009 that a state social worker went into the schoolhouse, found them all in the stinking rubbish, and rescued them… For Willie Levi, rescue was like a holiday. They went to the Super 8 Motel, slept in clean beds and had waffles for breakfast. From now on, he would be protected. He wouldn’t have to work with turkeys any more. He certainly wouldn’t eat them, ever again.

Mr. Levi died in April of the coronavirus.




Americans eat close to fifty million turkeys on Thanksgiving alone. Preparing them for the table, however, doesn’t always go smoothly. Every year, Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line receives over a hundred thousand calls. Phyllis Larson handled many of them:

One caller told her “I followed the directions but the turkey is blue.” Turned out, they left the blue plastic seal on the bird.

On Thanksgiving Day, she would field calls from hosts and hostesses who said they were expecting a big crowd, but they hadn’t gotten around to removing the turkey from the freezer.

Ms. Larson was a home economics teacher and an excellent cook, but, as her Chicago Sun-Times obituary notes, “perhaps her biggest skill was in assuring frazzled callers their guests were going to be happy and the holidays would be fine.”