Monday, January 18, 2010

Chocolate: The Exhibition in Kansas City

If chocolate is food for your soul then Chocolate: The Exhibition is a perfect way to educate yourself about this amazing food. I visited the exhibition at Kansas City, Missouri's Union Station, learned some things that I didn't already know, and heard several familiar stories.

The Field Museum of Chicago opened this exhibition at home, in 2002. It also has appeared (or will) in Indianapolis, Kansas City, Memphis,St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York City, Honolulu, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Cleveland, Ohio; Omaha, NE; Dearborn, MI; Gainesville, FL; Albany, NY; Raleigh, NC; Norman, OK; Anniston, AL; and Anaheim and Redding, CA.

As I handed my ticket to a fellow at the front desk, he offered me a cocoa-dusted almond from a large candy box. An image at the entrance resembled an old-fashioned chocolate candy store. Inside, rainforest sounds and Latin guitar surrounded me throughout the darkened room. I learned that tiny flies or midges pollinate cacao flowers, which grow on lower branches of the trees and that fungi on the forest floor help cacao trees absorb vital nutrients. I also learned that cacao seed pods mature at 3-5 years of tree age.

I was vaguely aware of cacao's importantance in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. But here I found out that the Mayan people combined fermented, dried, and roasted cacao paste with cornmeal, honey, and chile peppers to make their renowned cacao drinks, which they frequently used for religious ceremonies. I also found out that the Aztecs considered cacao a luxury drink, to be ingested only by their elite; and it was also used as money and payment to gods or rulers.

I was reminded that, although Spanish explorers did not find gold in the New World, they did find cacao (as well as corn, vanilla, chiles, tomatoes and potatoes). And I learned that the Spaniards were the only Europeans to have a cacao/chocolate beverage for 100 years, after they added sugar to it for the first time.

I learned about cacao harvest and processing and when milk was first added to chocolate. I saw elaborately decorated Mayan vessels used only for serving their beloved cacao beverage, intricately carved wooden chocolate stirrers and porcelain and silver 'chocolate cups' favored by London's aristocracy, by the early 1700s.

Half an hour later, I craved a big chunk of rich, dark chocolate. You know its a great exhibit when it stimulates your tastebuds so profoundly.

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