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Episode 6.3: "The Great American Conspiracy Roadshow" (part 3), feat. Texan podcaster Ryan Ray.

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Frito Pie is From Mars; Poutine is From Venus

(And chicken-fried steak will probably kill you)

Episode 6.3, supplementary essay

Recently, a professor from Tampa with whom I exchanged some emails forwarded me a semi-humorous New York Times article about French Canadian “snowbirds” (that’s what we call our elderly seasonal migrants) who were prevented from sojourning in Florida during covid. I could have made some witty comment about the fact that President Trump never referred to these migrants as a bunch of criminals and rapists (though he maybe did and I missed that particular tweet!), but I was more taken aback by the fact that the author of the piece referred to poutine as a Canadian "delicacy".

“Yeah,” I responded, “about as delectable (and healthy) as a plateful of biscuits and gravy or a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I will eat it, of course, but never without shame.”

If you never heard of poutine, I’m not sure whether to pity or congratulate you. This French-Canadian fast-food concoction marries French fries (preferably fried in lard) and unripened cheddar cheese curds, all bathed in a generous blanket of brown beef gravy. Variations on this triple-bypass inducer can include roast chicken, ground beef, bacon, hot dogs, Montreal-style smoked meat (that’s what we call pastrami), spaghetti sauce, alfredo sauce, Korean barbecue sauce, General Tao sauce, sliced corndog, pulled pork, lobster, foie gras, peas, jalapeno peppers, and/or whatever else will help you commit a slow suicide.

I’m not saying that none of this is appetizing. It certainly is. But “delicacy”? Hmm… I’m not so sure. The same goes for tourtière (which Microsoft Word aptly suggested I respell as “torture”), ragoût de pattes, galantine, cretons, pouding chômeur (“unemployment pudding”), fèves au lard, sucre à la crème, sugar pie, and the extra-fatty smoked meat sandwich that headlines the menu of Schwartz’s Delicatessen on Saint-Laurent boulevard.

Of course, Quebec is not the only place whose most popular dishes are cholesterol bombs. If anything, my drive through the Southern U.S. and through Texas taught me that Quebec may in fact be little more than a strong underdog in the World Cup of Culinary Self-Harm. Take Texan chicken-fried steak for instance: a slab of hammer-beaten cube-steak that is breaded, then deep fried, then smothered in cream sauce made from pan drippings, and served with a plateful of other fried tidbits and, of course, a bread roll (just in case you weren't sure if this meal contained enough carbs to help you walk to your car). Or take Frito Pie: a casserole made of beef and bean chilli, cheddar cheese, salsa, and—you guessed it—Frito corn chips, topped with a generous dollop of sour cream. But some people think cooking Frito pie in the oven takes too darn long, so they just toss all these ingredients straight into the tin foil chip bag. Strap it to your face and you can ruminate on it all day long. Like cattle. Yee haw!

Where am I going with all this? Well, if there is a moral to be found here (and I’d like to think there is), it’s that this sort of cultural grease-off got me thinking (it also made me quite hungry!) that it’s easy to ridicule the weirdness of another person’s culture and much harder to see the weirdness in our own. Our weirdness is usually not better than the weirdness of some other ethnic, religious, or regional community, it’s just more familiar to us. What we perceive as the cultural weirdness, moral backwardness, or epistemic stupidity of others is often just a distorted reflection of our own. For instance, Quebec and Texas have totally antithetical cultures if you focus only on their visible differences. To wit, Quebecers are overwhelmingly anti-gun, anti-oil (hydro electricity is our lifeblood), anti-organized religion, anti-death penalty (but pro-assisted suicide), pro-abortion, and ready to pay nearly half of their wages in taxes to obtain free healthcare, cheap public education (including college and university), and public daycares. Oh, and there is a law in Quebec now that prevents anyone who works for the state (including teachers and nurses) from wearing religious symbols. Most Texans, on the other hand, are pretty much the inverse of these things—except maybe in the People’s Socialist Republic of Austin, where these two worlds strangely meet. Quebecers also "enjoy" shoveling lots of snow, playing hockey, winter festivals, ice fishing, and the music of Celine Dion. They obediently wore masks through most of the pandemic, and only gritted their teeth when the provincial government imposed a weeks-long covid curfew (twice!). I don’t think most Texans would put up with any of this, even if they came with a free F-150 pickup truck and a side of spicy bean dip.

On the other hand, there is much that unites Quebec and Texas. Take their regionalism for example. Quebecers, like most Texans, are ruggedly independent-minded politically, and hate to let the federal government decide what is good for the province/state. That may be because they both existed as a people before they were absorbed into a larger federation and also existed as colonies of a more authoritarian and Catholic empire (French and Spanish), and have considered going it alone on more than one occasion. Linguistically, Quebecers and Texans actually speak a very similar dialect, albeit with different lexicons. And when it comes to muscle cars, big trucks, trailer parks, deer hunting, bonfires, and honkytonk music, Quebec and Texas are not so far apart. In fact, Quebec has its own version of country music, with an annual Country-Western festival and rodeo in St-Tite. (We'll also match your love of NASCAR with our very own Formula 1 Grand Prix).

We live in an age when every kind of stereotype is condemned as a form of violence perpetrated as a result of some hateful phobia, and certainly, spiteful stereotypes rob us of our common humanity. But stereotypes on their own are neither good nor bad. Much like the fairy tales we tell our children, or the myths we tell ourselves to help us make sense of history, they help us take the world we perceive (including ourselves) with a touch of simplistic humour, as long as we understand that they are not meant to be taken too literally, or used as a reason to discriminate. It may be that stereotypes—like, for instance, that of a tassle-sporting cowboy or toothless lumberjack—are off the mark from reality, but like all stereotypes they hold a grain of truth, and they can be looked on as a bit of satire in a world that needs to laugh at itself more. There are, I’m sure, countless issues than might make a Texan or a Quebecer snub their nose at each other's culture, weather, food, beliefs, or political values. But they also have a lot that can bring them together. If I, who hates country music, big pickup trucks, and firearms, was able to see the common humanity I shared with a few dozen “cowboy-booted rednecks” from Texas (and they, mine), then I’m sure we can all find a smidgeon of shared brotherhood to help us enjoy each other's quirks, and not take pot shots (or should I say axe swings) at each other.

They say opposites attract. If that's the case, then maybe Quebec and Texas have a shot at some sort of romance. (Like Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, or Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen, or... well, it just gets really weird after that.) So on behalf of Quebec, and in the interest of cultural harmony, let me be the first one to ask, "Hey Texas, wanna watch some Netflix and chill? Or maybe just watch Netflix. We don't want to creep out the kids".

Michel Gagné, 2022

* * *

My Road Trip Musings, Part 3:

"Nut Up or Shut Up"

(Translation: "Welcome to Texas!")

After dropping Scott off at the New Orleans airport I drove with almost no breaks until I hit Austin, listening to Marilyn: A Biography, a very long (and surprisingly pornographic) audio-book by Norman Mailer, which I will review in Episode 6.4. I was impressed by the size of Houston, the first city I passed through since I left D.C. which actually felt big. Canadians don't often realize, and Americans would probably be surprised to find out, that although the U.S. has far more cities than Canada does, most of them are actually fairly small in comparison to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. Apart from D.C. and Houston, Chicago was probably the only city I visited that made me feel lost. I didn't get to visit much of Houston unfortunately, though I'm sure that if I had, the mid-June humidity would have sapped my will to live.

I had heard much about Austin's more liberal culture, though I have to say it's still incredibly Texan both in the good and bad sense. It was also full of partying students, which I might have really enjoyed a few decades ago, but not so much anymore. I stayed away from the loud parts of my youth hostel and the nearby strip of dance clubs and enjoyed an evening walk through the downtown, a couple drinks at an uppity outdoor hotel lounge chatting with locals, and the quiet and empty hostel washrooms the next morning while all of the "kids" at the hostel were sleeping off their boozy evening.

A protesters' memorial to the Robb Elementary School shooting victims,

at the front gates of the Texas State Capitol in Austin, TX.

While I have tried to keep an open mind about the strong Southern affinity for guns, I can't say I came out of the U.S. feeling any more positive about their second amendment rights. Having befriended the mother of Marc Lepine, one of Canada's worst mass shooters, a few years ago (she and my father had once been church friends), and heard and read about all of the pain that caused and came out of her son's murderous actions, I find it hard to believe that the endless string of mass shootings taking place in the U.S. is not part of a collective folly fueled by apocalyptic fears of some dystopian dictatorship. The Uvalde, TX, school shooting at Robb Elementary School, and the Tops supermarket shooting in Buffalo, NY, having both taken place just a couple weeks before I set out on my trip, confirmed my beliefs. The 4th of July Hyland Park parade shooting in Chicago, IL, not far from the residence of a good friend of our podcast, Dr. Royce Lee, whom I met up with on my way through Chicago, made me even more resolute. It's not that gun violence doesn't occur in Canada, or the U.K., or New Zealand, or Australia, or any other Western country with a socio-political culture similar to the U.S., but its frequency and severity is far lower, largely because the vast majority of voters in these countries see that the purpose of automatic weapons is to kill as many humans as possible, as quickly as possible, and have little use in preventing the government from raising taxes or engaging in malicious searches and seizures, while they do make incidences of public violence that much more deadly. That doesn't mean that an angry and desperate person cannot make harmful use of a knife, a bat, or a large vehicle, but never with as much efficiency as an AR15.

The Texas State Capitol

I did not go into the LBJ Library & Museum expecting to be wowed. I did, however, end up finding the experience much more interesting than I thought I would. Just like the large array of television screens at the Museum of American History in Washington that were simultaneously "broadcasting" newsreel of the Vietnam War, the LBJ museum offers its visitors the chance to learn more about Johnson's personality and political conflicts by "listening in" on his phone conversations with Sixties-era rotary phone handsets. The architecture was impressive, and the museum acknowledged some of Johnson's ethically-questionable pressure tactics, as well as the controversial elements of his foreign policy, including the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the Israeli shooting of the USS Liberty.

President Johnson

I also discovered a newfound respect for First Lady Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson, who lived in the shadow of both her husband and predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy, but who was an educator and journalist, competent administrator, accomplished manager and investor, presidential advisor, and probably one of the most overqualified First Ladies in American history.

Lady Bird Johnson (right) with Jaqueline Kennedy, October 29th, 1960.

I was also impressed by the long list of social legislation that LBJ was able to pass during his presidency. In spite of his unearned reputation as the President who started the Vietnam War, Johnson broke ground on domestic policy in a way that has rarely been matched before or since.

Me in front of the LBJ Library

(with my British interviewees in the background).

The University of Texas tower

(from which Charles Whitman shot and killed 15 civilians and injured 31 in 1966)

My visit to the former Branch Davidian compound near Waco was both serene and unsettling. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, with gusts of wind and chirping birds. There were no clear remains of the destruction that was shown on TV in 1993 except for the concrete "pool", the "vault" (a concrete slab with a hole in it), and parts of the buried school bus that had once served as a makeshift bunker.

Surviving Davidians have made large efforts to erect several memorials and to continue making use of the land, mainly with a chapel, though it was hard to tell whether or not I and the dozen other civilians I crossed there were meant to feel welcome. (Certainly, the signs and monuments exuded a certain sense of angry victimhood). There was a small visitor's center, but although this was the middle of the afternoon, no one was there to welcome us. I had some interesting conversations there, including the one that is included in Episode 6.3A, but unfortunately the wind made my other recordings unusable. One of these exchanges was with a family of Mormons. It was interesting to reflect on the meaning of the word "cult" with them, and the irony wasn't lost on them that while they referred to the Davidians as a cult, they also realized that their own faith often gets targeted as a cult by others. We did agree, however, that some of their leading statesmen in Washington, like Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney, had probably been among the most reasonable politicians in Washington of the last decade and gave a good name to their church. And no one who produced Marie Osmond (my childhood crush) could be all that bad!

Arriving in Dallas gave me a surge of excitement. You can't read about a city for twenty years, and write about it for eight, without feeling a strange pull to see (and smell) it firsthand. My first visit to Dealey Plaza, however, was a bit of a turd. Literally. I parked my car a half-block east of the former Texas School Book Depository (which now houses the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza) to perform a pedestrian walkaround of the scene of Kennedy's assassination, circling behind the TSBD to come up onto the infamous "grassy knoll" as my first point of entry into the plaza. As I crossed the empty parking lot (it was nearly midnight) and peered over the even more infamous picket fence where conspiracists claim there was a second gunman shooting at JFK, I peered upon a dark silhouette crouching down a mere three feet before me, between the fence and a large tree, busily fertilizing the lawn with his afternoon meal. Yech! This was not the reception I had envisioned. I walked back to the TSBD and crossed onto Elm street a hundred yards further and took a number of pictures (after the man had pulled up his trousers and gone, of course).

A night-time view of the spot on Elm street where JFK was killed.

The next two days were a veritable buffet of JFK assassination lore: the Sixth Floor Museum, the motorcade route, Oswald's escape route, the house where Oswald posed for his infamous "Backyard Photos", Ruth Paine's House, etc. While it complemented my book and JFK studies a great deal (the slope of Elm street, the exact location of various witnesses, a clearer understanding of the distances between persons and things, the pattern of Oswald's escape, etc.), I'm glad to say that nothing I encountered in Dealey Plaza or the rest of Dallas made me doubt any of the conclusions I had drawn in my book. I returned to the Plaza at least three times, and was happy to converse with a wide array of visitors, some of whom believed in some kind of conspiracy, some of whom did not. It was fun to discuss the assassination with a pure and true believer like Mark Oakes, though I confess it did feel a bit like I was "picking on the fat kid in gym class", so I chose not to bicker with him too much. (I recorded a much longer conversation with him than the part that appears the episode, but much of what he shared with me was just contradiction, ad hominems, and non-sequiturs. We parted with friendly good wishes after I circled back and helped him pack all his paraphernalia into his car, and concluded that I could probably do more to change his mind by being nice and chatting about his interests and the city than by locking horns in a duel of factoids. In any event, I had never heard of Mark before, and he seemed rather harmless. Had I encountered Robert Groden instead, one of the most famous JFK conspiracists who has been actively spreading disinformation about JFK since I was in diapers, the exchange might have been more tense.

The former Texas School Book Depository

(Oswald stood at the second window from the top, far right)

A photo taken from the same position where Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination sequence.

(JFK was fatally wounded at the "X" above the pedestrian's head)

A display from the Sixth Floor Museum

A photo of Elm Street from the seventh floor of the TSBD, one floor above the "sniper's nest".

(The sixth floor sniper's nest is encased in plexiglass)

The rooming house where Lee Oswald lived when he worked at the TSBD

José at the spot outside his house where Lee Oswald shot Officer J.D. Tippit.

The Texas Theatre (yes, that's how it's spelled) where Lee Oswald was arrested.

A creepy mural of Lee Oswald in the Oak Cliff neighborhood

The West Neely backyard where Oswald posed with his rifle and revolver

Lee Harvey Oswald: Hunter of Fascists (Late March 1963)

(taken about two weeks before his failed assassination attempt on Gen. Edwin Walker)

Ruth and Michael Paine's house in Irving, TX

(Oswald's rifle, backyard photos, and photos of Edwin Walker's house were stored in the garage)

There are many places in Dallas I would have liked to have more time to visit: the cemeteries where Tippit and Oswald were buried, Parkland hospital's halls and its old emergency room, the old municipal building where Oswald was interrogated and detained by the Dallas Police, the house of Edwin Walker, etc. But these can wait until my next visit, if these locations are still accessible then. My biggest regret, however, though through no fault of my own, was not being able to meet with retired journalist Hugh Aynesworth, a friend of Max Holland and Fred Litwin, who has been debunking conspiracy theories about JFK since the day it all happened. Aynesworth's health did not permit that we meet at that time, though I wish him well and pray for his well-being. He is a giant in the field of conspiracy-debunking.

Until my next visit, I'll be dreaming of Buc-ee's.

Michel Gagné, 2022.

* * *

Documents related to this episode:*

Episode 6.3A

1. JFK ( Warner Brothers, 1991). Dir. Oliver Stone. Feat. Kevin Costner and Jay O. Sanders.

2. Carla Astudillo, Reese Oxner, and Eric Neugeboren: "What we know, minute by minute, about how the Uvalde shooting and police response unfolded," The Texas Tribune, May 27, 2022.

3. "Uvalde School Shooting: Featured Coverage". The Texas Tribune, 2022.

4. LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, University of Texas, Austin, TX.

5. Robert Dallek: Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973. Oxford University Press, 1998.

6. Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson, U.S. Navy: "The Truth About Tonkin," Naval History Magazine, Volume 22, Number 1February 2008.

7. Brian Dunning: "False Flag Attack? The USS Liberty," Skeptoid, Podcast #835, June 7, 2022.

8. "Charles Whitman," (Texas Tower Shooter), Wikipedia page.

9. "Waco: The Inside Story," Produced by Michael Kirk, Kenneth Levis, and Michael McLeod. PBS: Frontline, October 17, 1995.

10. Waco: The Rules of Engagement. Directed by William Gazecki, 1997.

11. Waco (TV Miniseries, 2018). Created by Drew and John Erick Dowdle.

12. Dallas (TV Series, 1978-91). Created by David Jacobs. Theme music composed by Jerrold Immel. Featuring Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray.

13. Vincent Bugliosi: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. W.W. Morton & Co. 2007.

14. Gerald Posner: Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Anchor Books, 1993, 2013. (Open Road Media, Reissue edition, 2013).

17. Roger Stone: The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. Skyhorse, 2013.

19. John McAdams: "JFK Assassination a Hobo Hit? The Three Tramps," (n.d.) The Kennedy Assassination.

20. M. Duke Lane: "Freeway Man" (2007), an assessment Virgil "Ed." Hoffman's alleged witnessing of shooters on the grassy knoll. The Kennedy Assassination, edited by John McAdams.

21. "John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza," Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, 2022.

22. "Dealey Plaza," Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, 2022.

Episode 6.3B

1. Ryan Ray: Inside the War Room Podcast. War Room Media.

3. Noam Chomsky, John Junkerman, and Takei Masakazu: Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony, and the Rule of Force. Routledge, 2011.

4. "Hare Trigger," Merry Melodies, Warner Bros., 1945. Story by Michael Maltese. Directed by Fritz Freleng. Featuring Mel Blanc (voices).

5. Zombieland (Columbia Pictures, 2009). Directed by Ruben Fleisher. Featuring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg.

6. Parkland (Exclusive Media Group, 2013). Directed by Peter Landesman. Featuring Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Welling.

8. "The Kennedy Detail" (Interview with Gerald Blaine, Clint Hill, and Lisa McCubbin), C-SPAN, 2010.

9. Gerald Blaine, with Lisa McCubbin: The Kennedy Detail (Enhanced Edition): JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, Gallery Books, 2010.

10. Clint Hill, with Lisa McCubbin: Mrs. Kennedy and Me: An Intimate Memoir. Gallery Books, 2012.

12. Jim Garrison (with Zachary Sklar): On the Trail of the Assassins: One Man's Quest to Solve the Murder of President Kennedy. Skyhorse, 2012. (Sheridan Square Press, 1988).

13. Vincent Bugliosi: Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

14. John McAdams: "Changed Motorcade Route in Dallas?" (n.d.) The Kennedy Assassination.

16. House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA): "B. Photograph Authentication: The Backyard Photographs," HSCA Appendix to Hearings - Volume VI,138-225. History Matters.

17. "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" PBS: Frontline, 1993, 2013. Featuring Robert L. Oswald, G. Robert Blakey, Priscilla Johnson-MacMillan, and Ruth Paine.

18. Seinfeld (TV Series 1989–1998). Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. ("Seinfeld - The Magic Loogie, Reconstructed").

* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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