Chicago museum exhibits chocolate

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

CHICAGO -- My day at the Field Museum started with a slice of flourless chocolate cake the Queen Mother is said to adore. It ended with two exotic truffles a princess would have treasured.

In between, I saw a replica of a yellow, melon-like cacao pod, learned about the history, culture and science of chocolate, and even took in some interesting trivia: Americans eat an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person each year, for example.

It's all part of "Chocolate," a traveling exhibition that opened on Valentine's Day and runs through Dec. 31.

Well, most of it anyway. Visitors will get to sample some chocolate, but the cake was part of a one-day media event featuring chef Wolfgang Puck.

"Maida Heatter told me the Queen Mother eats it every day. The good thing is she doesn't smoke," joked Puck, who recently worked with the dessert chef and cookbook author to adapt Heatter's recipe for Queen Mother's Cake.

England's Queen Mother Elizabeth is far from alone in her love of chocolate. Legend has it that Casanova ate chocolate to enhance his lovemaking. And letters prove the Marquis de Sade asked his wife to send him chocolate in prison.

The allure of chocolate and the love affair people have with it are what made chocolate stand out as a topic worth an entire exhibition, said Virginia Trice, project administrator.

The show will travel to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Feb. 14, 2003, through May 11, 2003; and to the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, June 14, 2003, through Sept. 7, 2003.

It's only fitting that exhibition visitors get to sample some chocolate. After all, said Trice, "It's hard to say the word without tasting it."

So, should the museum be concerned? Is chocolate truly an aphrodisiac? Some people think chocolate gives them the same sensation as being in love, Puck said.

An exhibition plaque takes a more serious approach to the question. It says chocolate contains the chemical phenylethylamine, "the same substance created by the human brain when a person experiences love. However, there is no conclusive evidence that chocolate stimulates the libido."

The exhibition is as much about the culture of the people who have harvested, sold and devoured chocolate over the centuries as about chocolate itself.

It includes agriculture tools, pre-Columbian ceramics and ritual objects, European silver and porcelain chocolate services, 20th-century cocoa tins, advertising signs, decorative chocolate molds, old recipe booklets, a vending machine where people once could buy Hershey candy bars for one cent each -- even a brightly covered package that once held chocolate cigarettes.

Who first sampled the cacao seeds that would ultimately become the chocolate of Halloween treats, Easter bunny creations, Valentine's Day candy and even military rations?

It may well have been the monkeys, rodents and birds living near the rain forest trees. They break into the football-size pods growing on tree trunks, eat the sweet pulp and spit out the bitter seeds.

As for humans, research indicates the ancient Mayans of Mexico and Central America made cacao into a spicy drink sometime between 200 and 900 A.D.

The event is not recorded, but it's thought the Mayans let the cacao seeds ferment, then dried, roasted and crushed them before adding water and spices and drinking the frothy mixture.

"Human beings are tinkerers," says Jonathan Haas, an anthropology curator at the museum. "We like to try things. And when most of your diet comes from corn, you're going to be looking for variety."

The Aztecs later picked up on chocolate and, between the 13th and 16th centuries, treated it as a drink served to the elite in lavishly decorated vessels. They also used the valuable cacao seeds as money.

Chocolate didn't get sweet until the 16th century, when the Spanish mixed sugar with cacao, to get rid of the bitter taste.

By 1700, London had almost 2,000 chocolate houses, similar to today's coffeehouses before they turned into men's social clubs. In Italy, chocolate was the preferred drink of 18th-century Roman Catholic cardinals, who had it brought in while electing a new pope.

Chocolate became less expensive to produce and therefore more accessible after a Dutch chemist in 1828 invented the cocoa press, which extracts cocoa butter from chocolate and leaves the powder known as cocoa.

Forty years later, the first box of chocolates and later the first Valentine's Day candy box hit the scene.

Pastry chef Jacques Torres, who left New York's Le Cirque restaurant to open Jacques Torres Chocolate retail shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., last year, calls chocolate "a magical product," so versatile it can be made into cakes, ice cream, drinks, cookies and more.

"Chocolate is like a diamond," he said recently. "It has a lot of different faces."

Puck, who eats a little chocolate every day, believes it makes sense to have an exhibition about chocolate at the Field Museum, better known for its dinosaur collection.

"Food and history go hand in hand," says Puck. "Show me what you eat, and we'll show you how you live."

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