NEW YORK (UPI) — The American Museum of Natural History’s delectable new exhibition, “Chocolate,” is fun for the whole family and educational, too, especially for chocoholics who want to know more about their favorite sweet.
Lovers of chocolate today think of it as a solid, usually in the form of candy, but for 90 percent of its history it was consumed in liquid form as a bitter, spicy drink. It wasn’t combined with sugar to make it a sweet drink until it was imported into Spain in the form of beans from Mexico in the 16th century.
This is just one of the highlights in the romantic history of the cacao (generally called cocoa) bean, a member of the botanical genus Theobroma, meaning “food for the gods.” It is a story delightfully told through the display of more than 200 objects in free-standing exhibit stations, some of them interactive; several videos showing processing of the bean; photos; posters, and wall murals.
On view through Sept. 7, “Chocolate” touches on botany, ecology, anthropology, economics, conservation, and popular culture in a painless way pitched to the intellectual level of grade school students. The show is on a national tour developed by The Field Museum in Chicago, and all textual material is in English and Spanish.
The exhibit opens with a display of archaeological items, such as painted clay Maya pots used for ceremonial consumption of chocolate whipped into a froth, and ends on a note of fantasy — an upended chocolate box of giant proportions containing a mixture of assorted chocolates and video monitors showing chocolate lovers talking about their beloved bean. Pouffe seating is provided in front of the exhibit in the form of chocolate bonbons in their frilled wrappings.
Elsewhere the viewer learns that cacao beans come from yellow pods the size of pineapples that spring from the trunk of an evergreen tree. Each pod holds 30 to 50 beans, enough to make seven l.5-ounce milk chocolate bars. Although the tree originated in Central America, less than 2 percent of cacao comes from that region today, with Africa accounting for more than 50 percent of production.
Cacao is so important to the current economy of Ghana that some wealthy chocolate kings choose to be buried in wooden coffins shaped and painted like cacao pods, one of which is among the most popular displays in the show. The coffin-maker, Kane Kwei, has attached his sculptured pod to a three-foot-high tree trunk bearing smaller pods to make it more realistic.
Almost as exotic is the lengths to which European porcelain manufacturers went to turn out attractive hot chocolate services once the craze for the seductive drink hit its peak in the 18th century with 2,000 public chocolate house open for business in London alone. There is a splendid display of delicate Meissen ware from Germany including a 20-piece chocolate set designed for travelers and examples of silver chocolate pots.
The European market for cacao and the sugar to sweeten it played a large role in the demand for African and native Indian slave labor to work the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean, resulting in protests about inhuman working conditions from even a man like British chocolate-maker William Cadbury who expressed his concerns in a letter included in the exhibit. Cadbury’s introduced the first box of chocolates in 1868 and later the first Valentine’s Day candy box.
A Dutch chemist, Coenraad van Houten, invented in 1828 the cocoa press for cheap extraction of cocoa butter, the basis of most chocolate products. The show includes a plethora of chocolate products including tins of Dutch powdered chocolate along with early Swiss milk chocolate bars using the Nestle brothers’ creation, powdered milk, and products churned out by Rodolph Lindt. America’s contribution to chocolate culture is represented by the products of Pennsylvania confectioner Milton S. Hershey and such concoctions as Ovaltine and Cocoa-Crush beverages.
Today there are nearly 40,000 kinds of chocolate sold in the United States and prices for raw cocao are posted daily by the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange in New York on a running ticker, also on display. The marketing of products is well documented with examples of packaging for foods that contain chocolate such as cake mixes and hot mole sauce, a specialty of Mexico.
Utensils associated with chocolate culture are found throughout the show. There are many examples of molinillos, the traditional wooden stirring sticks used to whip chocolate, tiny 18th century porcelain spoons to stir chocolate drinks, novelty molds to shape chocolate into Santa Clauses and Easter bunnies, and machetes for cutting pods from trees along with baskets for collecting them and mats for drying them.
Chocolate was considered so important to the diet and happiness of U.S. military personnel in World War II that nearly all the chocolate produced for the four war years was earmarked for the military, and even today in Iraq American Army D-rations include three four-ounce chocolate bars. And, yes, chocolate has been into space. It went as dietary rations aboard the space shuttle Columbia.
Having feasted on a plethora of information and display, the visitor to “Chocolate” can visit the show’s gift shop and stock up on chocolate in many commercial forms, books about the subject, T-shirts, and other souvenirs. Or they can visit a small caf