Updated: 16 hours ago
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 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 delicious (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 up here), 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”? Hmmm… I’m not so sure. The same goes for tourtière (which Microsoft Word aptly suggested I rewrite as “torture”), ragoût de pattes, galantine, cretons, pouding chômeur (“unemployment pudding”), pork beans, sugar pie, sucre à la crème, 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 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 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 the 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 harder to see the weirdness in our own. Our weirdness is usually not better than the weirdness of some other ethnic, religious, or regional group, it’s just more familiar. 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, taking part in numerous winter sports and 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, roadkill, 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 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 the other one’s culture, weather, food, beliefs, or political values. But they also have a lot that can bring them together. If I was able to see the common humanity that 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.
Michel Gagné, 2022
* * *
My Road Trip Musings, Part 3:
"Nut Up or Shut Up"
Please come back soon.
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Documents related to this episode:*
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