Nancy Blackwell, 58
Consumer affairs hotline operator
McCormick & Co.
Hunt Valley, Maryland
"Not everybody could do this job. There are hundreds of spices to be familiar with, and you never know what someone will ask. People want to know if they can use one herb instead of another, or if they can make something ahead of time and reheat it, or if they can substitute different meat.
"I taught myself to cook. I got married at 19, and I didn't know how to boil water. I have a scar on my hand from when I stuck myself using a knife to separate frozen hamburgers. That's how stupid I was. Now I cook all the time. We go to the test kitchen once a month and cook with new products so we can tell the customers what they taste like. Before the phone lines open, we have beef and chicken and fish for breakfast.
"Usually, I get 1,200 calls a month, but during the holidays it goes up to 1,500 or so. People remember their mother's or grandmother's dressing, but they can't find the recipe, and the meal won't be same without it. All they know is, it was on the back of our poultry-seasoning mix. That's why we keep copies of old products dating back to the 1960s.
"We have people who call over and over. Some say, 'My mother's not here anymore, so I'm calling you.' Or a widower says, 'I'm doing the cooking now.' It makes you sad. People send gifts—zucchini bread, cookies, tomato preserves. It's nice to know you helped. You certainly don't want to ruin their dinner."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.