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Museum exhibit takes an historic look at chocolate's lure through the ages

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Ancient obsession
Field Museum exhibit takes an historic look at chocolate's lure through the ages

By Kristin Eddy From the Chicago Tribune
February 13, 2002

Jonathan Haas, a curator in the department of anthropology at the Field Museum, has been in a chocolate fog for some time now. During four years of working on the museum's latest project, he never lacked for volunteers to participate in his research. And no one ever complained.

"Here, try these chocolates," he insisted, leaning forward from a chair in his office and proffering a box of bittersweet squares. "A friend of mine just brought them back from Paris. After the first staff meeting about this exhibit, I said that we would never again get together without having some chocolate to eat."

So the sweet stuff is on his brain. It makes sense, considering the research he and other staff members have put into the museum's launch of "Chocolate," an exhibition that opens tomorrow and runs through Sept. 8.

Far from being just eye candy, the show presents to the public what anthropologists, artists, agricultural researchers and historians have known for some time--chocolate is much more than a confection.

Its role as a beverage, a food and a commodity has resonated since pre-Colombian times, and today, the foodstuff not only is a fixture of our diet, it also generates retail sales of about $13 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

But most people don't think about chocolate's role. They just eat it, about 12 pounds per person each year in this country. That's in bars, sauces, cookies, chips, cakes and particularly the boxes of bonbons given to one sweetie after another on Valentine's Day.

Yet chocolate rates more than a just a cursory bite. Every crumb of chocolate can trace its ancestry to the cacao trees that originated in Central and South America. These flowering evergreens, from which we get the word "cocoa," flourished for centuries, their fruit enjoyed exclusively by native populations before coming into contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th Century.

Growing up to 30 feet in height, the cacao made its home in the rain forest, sprouting wrinkly, football-sized pods, which ripen from green to maroon. When split, the pods yield a sticky white pulp that cradles the cacao beans. The beans are scooped out, left to ferment, then dried and roasted before being further processed.

Visitors to the museum's "Chocolate" will find a replica of a cacao tree set in a "rain forest" environment. Re-creating the plant's natural habitat was essential to the museum curators, who realized that most people are familiar with chocolate only in its processed state. As the exhibit continues, visitors take a journey from cacao tree to commodity over a span of hundreds of years.

This wasn't always what the museum had in mind, according to Sophia Siskel, director of exhibitions.

"In 1998, we were planning something on a much smaller scale," Siskel said. "It was going to be more like artifacts in wooden cases in a space the size of an office. But then we held a member's night, when upcoming exhibits are announced, and people were gaga over the idea. I started to get worried that what we were planning to offer wasn't enough."

The idea grew into a 5,000-square-foot exhibition. The staff was eager for the opportunity to follow such a popular ingredient from its ecological roots through its role in trade, dining and culture, Siskel said.

"We wanted to let kids know that what they are putting in their mouths is the result of a complex cultural and historical process," she said. "The way chocolate is manufactured is so far removed from its natural beginnings that it almost seems plastic."

Objects on display include reproductions of the tiny flies, called midges, that pollinate the trees; pre-Colombian ceramics used for chocolate rituals; and, from Europe, porcelain chocolate cups and pitchers lent by museums around the country. A collection of candy bar wrappers from around the world is represented--some of them antique, and some, admitted one of the exhibit developers, freshly harvested from late-afternoon snacks.

And when exhibit visitors are ready to rest, they can sit on a tufted ottoman, crafted to look like a giant bonbon in its wrapper.

Seeds of change

When and where exactly the fruit of the cacao tree first began this progression from rain forest to vending machine is unknown.

The Olmec people may have been the first to discover the seeds, Robert Burleigh writes in "Chocolate: Riches from the Rainforest," but the Mayans perfected the process that made cacao available as a beverage. The Aztecs, too, developed an obsession with the drink, but because they did not grow cacao themselves, they began to trade for it, according to Burleigh.

In pre-Colombian times, chocolate beans were commonly used as currency, Haas explained.

That is why a cupful of cocoa "was an elite beverage," he said. "You could drink your wealth. It was like lighting your cigar with a hundred-dollar bill. Montezuma consumed around 50 cups a day."

But Montezuma's favorite drink was more akin to swallowing black coffee than the sweet drink we know.

"New World chocolate was not based on sugar," Haas said. "Chocolate was a bitter drink."

When flavors were added to it, they tended to the savory, rather than sweet; to this day, Haas said, shops in Oaxaca still sell hand-blended chocolate formulas mixed with dried chilies.

Other pre-Colombian seasonings included herbs, flower petals and achiote seed, writes Maricel E. Presilla in her book "The New Taste of Chocolate": "This traditional concept of chocolate has never wholly died out in Mexico and other parts of Latin America."

It was in Europe that chocolate became the sugary confection that is most familiar today. The Spanish conceived of sweetening the beverage with cane sugar, but the practice of drinking the pleasant result was kept secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a century. When it spread to the rest of the continent, it became wildly popular and praised for its health-giving properties.

Chocolate was still consumed mainly as a drink into the 1700s, with water, coffee and even wine or beer added as a base, according to John A. West in "Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World." Chocolate houses, in which the drink was poured from serving sets made of everything from pewter to gold, spread throughout Europe. West credits an Englishman, Nicholas Sanders, with first blending chocolate with hot milk and sugar in 1727; other British entrepreneurs, including the Cadbury family, were early empire builders in the world of chocolate.

The English also invented chocolate candy in 1847, while the Swiss introduced milk to the confections in 1876, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. Americans, like Europeans, embraced all forms of the product and by the 20th Century, deemed it essential to the nourishment of the armed forces: World War II soldiers found chocolate bars in their rations and it remains standard issue today.

Today, with cacao being produced in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean as well as the Americas, the ingredient's appeal is stronger than ever.

Yet for all that, Americans, who pull their weight in so many other consumption figures, are still far behind most Europeans in their appreciation of it. Belgians, Danes, Austrians, Frenchmen and Germans eat more chocolate annually than we do. Even the Irish--the Irish?--exceed our consumption figures, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. At the top of the heap are the Swiss, who pack away more than 22 pounds per person a year, nearly double our intake.

In another continental divide, Americans have long preferred milk chocolate, while Europeans favor the dark kind.

But light or dark, there is such enormous demand for the product that harvesting and conservation methods are of great interest to researchers trying to save the fragile plant from ecological destruction.

"If we cut down all of the rain forest, we can't grow enough chocolate for the world," Siskel said. "Cacao is very delicate and can't be grown everywhere."

So this Valentine's Day, you might want to direct your fondest glances to one of the great gifts to mankind. Refuse to gobble chocolate; instead, let a nice-sized sliver rest on your tongue and melt slowly.

Chocolate has traveled a long way, from the Americas to around the world and back again. Whatever you pay for it, it's worth every bite.

Chocolate terms and types

When buying bar chocolate, you may be confused by the different ways it is described. There are variables in chocolate and most of them have to do with the amount of cocoa butter and sweeteners added during production.

Here are some of the terms, explained by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, that you will come across on the labels:

Chocolate liquor: The liquid substance produced from roasted, ground cacao beans. The cacao bean nib, or center, is ground to a smooth, liquid state, then cooled and molded into blocks to sell to manufacturers. The liquor contains about 53 percent cocoa butter.

Unsweetened or baking chocolate: A bitter chocolate produced by adding cocoa butter to the chocolate liquor. Vanilla may be added for flavor, but not sugar. This is used in recipes in which sugar is added.

Bittersweet, semisweet or sweet chocolate: Sugar is added to unsweetened chocolate in varying amounts, along with cocoa butter.

Milk chocolate: Unsweetened chocolate to which cocoa butter, sweeteners and whole milk solids have been added.

White chocolate: This popular flavoring is not technically chocolate because it contains only cocoa butter--mixed with milk and sugar--but no chocolate liquor.

Cocoa powder: The powder left over after cocoa butter is removed from the chocolate liquor.

Dutch-processed cocoa powder: Alkalizing agents are added to cocoa powder to deepen the color; the flavor also is somewhat deeper, or less fruity, than regular cocoa powder.

Chocolate sources

- Professional cooks suggest using the highest-quality cooking and baking chocolate, meaning a minimum of 65 percent butterfat, to bring out the best flavor in chocolate desserts. Some of the brands to look for include Callebaut, Cote d'Or, El Rey, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, Schokinag, and Valrhona.

- Look for a variety of specialty chocolate brands at the Chicago area locations of Chalet Wine & Cheese Shop, Treasure Island, Whole Foods Market and Williams-Sonoma stores.

- Also, Fox & Obel, 401 E. Illinois St.; Leonidas Pralines, 231 S. LaSalle St.; Sam's Wines & Spirits, 1720 N. Marcey St. and Sur La Table, 54 E. Walton St.

- Look for single-brand chocolates at stores such as Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, 825 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest; Moonstruck Chocolate Bar, 320 N. Michigan Ave. and 33 S. Northwest Hwy., Park Ridge; Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland, 900 N. Michigan Ave.; and Godiva Chocolatier, various locations around Chicago.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
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Not sure if anyone has posted this link yet, but ... Jacques Torres has a yummy site!
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
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