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McGill Reporter
November 10, 2005 - Volume 38 Number 06
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In focus

Mathias Leblanc: All creatures great and small

Caption follows
Mathias Leblanc's job has gone to the dogs — but he's not complaining.
Owen Egan

Mathias Leblanc combines his love for animals and his calling to help people in his new position as University Veterinarian in McGill's Office of the Vice-Principal (Research). With his characteristic good-nature Leblanc provides regulatory oversight for all of the animal care and use programs at McGill and its affiliated hospitals. He must make sure that researchers adhere to the strict guidelines set by the various research funding agencies such as the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

"Research on animals is a privilege," says Leblanc. "We make sure that it's justified, that it's ethically correct and that it's properly done."

Leblanc loves to collaborate with staff to help them create the best environment for animal research. He ensures that guidelines are properly followed and that the scientists feel proud of their work with animals.

Interacting with both people and animals is what Leblanc likes best. As a teenager he wasn't sure whether to become a vet or a doctor. "Originally I did a lot of volunteer work with children at Ste. Justine Hospital and I really wanted to help out children," he recounts. But then, greatly affected by the death of his great dane, he decided to become a vet.

Leblanc began his studies at McGill, then moved on to Quebec's only veterinary school at the Université de Montréal in Ste. Hyacinthe. He then spent two years in small animal practice, going on to Université Laval to obtain his MA and PhD in molecular endocrinology. Now, as he completes his residency in veterinary pathology back at U de M, he has embarked on his new position at McGill as of the end of September.

So whether he reviews protocols, takes part in animal care committees, performs routine biopsies and necropsies, plans for animal facilities, or visits the animals to make sure they're as comfortable as possible in their environment, Leblanc holds that the most important part of his job is animal care, and secondly, to help the researchers do their work.

Although he makes sure the animals are happy and healthy, it's generally the researchers and technicians who handle them. "From fish, rodents, frogs, farm animals to even wildlife, research at McGill is very diversified," he says. Each handler has expertise specific to the creatures in their project.

When Leblanc is not on the job, he loves to spend time with his wife and two kids. "All my strength has always come from my wife, from my kids, from my family. So if I do what I like, and I'm part of McGill, it's in great part due to them."

Despite having had dogs all of his life, these days Leblanc is too busy to have a pet. "I love animals, but I always remember there's a responsibility," he says. "When you have animals you must take care of them — in everyday life, as well as when you're a researcher."

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Sweet scholarship

Conference satiates food lovers' appetite

Serious foodies gathered at the toothsome conference "What's for dinner? The daily meal through history," November 4 and 5 at the McCord Museum of Canadian History.

The colloquium was co-organized by McCord director Victoria Dickenson, along with the aptly named Nathalie Cooke, program director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

The Cowan's Chocolate poster girl circa 1915.
Courtesy of McCord Museum

Participants tackled topics such as the regional differences in community cookbooks, gender roles in kitchens past, the revival of red fife wheat in Canada, the de-skilling of our culture, and the socio-politico implications of the Slow Food movement.

McGill-related scholars included Dickenson, Cooke, and chocolate researcher Catherine MacPherson.

"People get this dreamy look on their face when I tell them I'm studying chocolate," says Catherine MacPherson, affiliated with the McCord, which is partnering with the University of California and Mars Inc. to look at the history of chocolate in North America from the colonial era through to the early 20th century.

In the 18th century, in Fortress Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, granular cacao was mixed with sugar and spices such as cinnamon, anise and vanilla, then formed into small pucks or balls. These would be dissolved and frothed in hot water to make a fragrant, if grainy, restorative drink. Basically, the good soldiers of New France were imbibing the same sort of chocolate that you can find today in the south of Mexico and Montreal's Latin American supermarkets under the Abuelita [grandma] brand.

Just as a rosy-cheeked, if wrinkly, dame adorns the Abuelita box, Canadian chocolate labels have often portrayed gals touting their sweet wares, like Laura Secord (who looked to be a dour spinster before a mid-20th century makeover), the saintly Evangeline for Ganong, and Cowan's come-hither lass as pictured above, circa 1915.

Nathalie Cooke exploded the popularly held — and much lamented — belief that we're losing the traditional family dinner hour. Such disintegration is a shame, the line of thinking goes, because the ritual is a comfort to all and integral to our children's health and well-being.

But it's just not so, Cooke's research found. Only 20 percent of families say they have fewer than four dinners together each week, while in the early part of the 20th century, the dinner's focus was more on feeding the family breadwinner than on youngsters and other adults. And later decades show that kids and teens were often reluctant to eat grown-up fare. And a comfort? Please — cooks have always found getting food (as well as the family!) to the table to be a major stress of the day.

Cooke pointed out the tension between perceived modern stressors and traditional ideals has been with us for the better part of a century, just like the challenges of providing good food and a convivial setting. Frankly, it seems like the most traditional aspect of the traditional family dinner is fretting about it.

Victoria Dickenson took a historical look at Champlain's early 17th-century voyages to the New World, and the brave souls who sampled the local foodstuffs to bring back to Europe.

Though Champlain himself was an open-minded gastronome, just because something smelt, looked, and tasted good, didn't mean it would be accepted back home.

Some resemblance to familiar edibles was key to Old World approval. For example, though pineapples were just outlandish, by likening them visually to thistles, and then globe artichokes, Europeans could accommodate them in their edible lexicon. The tubers that would later be called Jerusalem artichokes were lauded for their taste of artichoke. And groundnuts grew underground like truffles, a newly embraced delicacy.

Vegetables that were related to the poisonous nightshade took longer to hit the tabletops. Eggplants, aka mala insana, were blamed for headaches, hardening of the liver, and bad skin. Potatoes' leprous appearance led to their being banned in parts of France. Peppers, however, were categorized as "hot" to taste, and thus like the pepper of the East, a prized spice because of its Galenic properties of hot and dry.

Sometimes a more circuitous route to the Old World helped a veg gain a toehold. Capsicum peppers, being handled from Mexico to the Azores to Goa, ultimately arrived at the Mediterranean through the Turkish traders. Arriving from the East placed them alongside other already embraced gastronomic novelties.

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