In Pa. Thanksgiving is about the cooking, In Fla., it’s about the eating | Keith Ori

Every two weeks, “Zombie House Flipping” star and Hummelstown native Keith Ori writes about the notable differences between growing up in Pennsylvania and living in Florida.

I’ve always thought Thanksgiving was a peculiar holiday. This goes back to the picture in the textbooks we were raised on, you know the one: long table, full of food, chagrined turkey on center, pilgrims straight from central casting on one side and grateful but nearly naked Native Americans on the other, all breaking bread in perfect harmony.

In the 1970s the world didn’t really stretch too much farther than I could see, but somehow this scene just felt super unlikely.

My elementary teachers insisted that it was, in fact, the way things went down, but deep inside I knew I’d never met a Native American who seemed really stoked about Thanksgiving. The fact that I hadn’t actually met any Native Americans at all was left out of my fourth grade analysis as irrelevant because, I reasoned, if Thanksgiving really happened the way it was portrayed then Native Americans would definitely show up for the annual reunion.

Basically, Thanksgiving held exclusively with alabaster white folks (and let’s face it, by late November in Pa. y’all are as short on melatonin as you are on leafy trees) seemed kind of like the Super Bowl without the AFC.

I always thought it would’ve been cool if some Native Americans showed up to my parent’s house and surprised everyone, though my mom would have found this a little more than surprising. I imagined them offering a few corrections for historical accuracy, like “We call it maize”, as well as admonishments not to litter, because these are the things 1970s Native Americans did on TV, but all we ever got were relatives.

Lots of relatives. The scene played out, year after year, something like the film “Groundhog Day” — everybody dressed up in uncomfortable clothes, told the same stories, offered polite comments about the (legitimately amazing) food my mom made, ate more than their fill and then quickly retreated to the living room in a startlingly torpid state.

After a few years I felt like I knew the script; I knew what people were going to say before they said it. It was the one day of my life, every year, where I knew exactly what was going to happen from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep, which was somehow both comforting and unsettling in that ‘glitch in the Matrix’ sort of way.

That all changed when I went to college in Mississippi and started spending Thanksgiving in New Orleans. On the way to the first New Orleans Thanksgiving my host explained that her family deep fried their Thanksgiving turkeys. Naturally I thought it was “mess with the Yankee day,” because, I mean, how would one even go about frying something the size of a Honda car motor? It made no sense.

But yet, there it was. Leave it to the South. Anything you want to fry, Southerners have figured out a way to do it. Frying a turkey in a giant vat was absolutely fascinating; get a guy who’s been drinking since 10 a.m. (it’s New Orleans, people) to use a very hot propane flame in an effort to superheat five gallons of dense accelerant with only a frozen turkey standing in the way of disaster. It was way more precarious looking than contemporary food production is supposed to be.

Later, when I moved to Florida, we did have a few Thanksgivings where we prepared our own food, and in fact one memorable attempt where a guest/host, in an attempt to fry a turkey in my backyard inexplicably caught a tree on fire.

I remember watching as this whole tree started going up like Charlton Heston’s burning bush, wondering how in the hell did a tree catch on fire during the production of food? The cook, a native Floridian, was more sanguine about it though, and admitted it wasn’t the first tree he’d lost to Thanksgiving.

For the most part today, the Floridians I know and have been invited to share Thanksgiving with buy their food already prepared, and this is probably the largest distinction between Pa. and Florida.

The traditions of Thanksgiving seem to rule in Pa. where the process of planning and preparing the meals provide a rhythm for the holiday, whereas in Florida people seem more interested in getting to the whole eating, relaxing, and watching football part. We’re not quite at the “drive through Thanksgiving dinner” in Florida, but if you squint real hard it might be visible on the horizon.

This year will be different though. Very different. Tradition is going to take a beating as people try to figure out how to celebrate with family, or perhaps without family, as we all try to stay safe through COVID-19. It’s going to hurt a little, but hopefully next year things will be back to normal. It’s just weird to think that without the proper precautions something even worse than catching your tree on fire could come from Thanksgiving.

Stay safe everybody.

Keith Ori is presently writing a memoir of growing up in Central Pa. He can be reached at his website or on Instagram at @keithori

READ MORE: Post-Election Day, Florida looks at Pa. and thinks ‘Glad it wasn’t us’ | Keith Ori

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