Chocolate: The Exhibit @ The Natural History Museum of Utah

Posted February 20, 2014 in
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Chocolate comes from gigantic pods of the cacao tree. Photo: Amanda Rock

Chocolate: The Exhibit seizes you the moment you enter. The heady scent of chocolate leads you through incarnations of the cacao bean in this exhibit developed by the Field Museum in Chicago. “We are so excited to have Chocolate: The Exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Utah,” says Ann Hanniball, the Associate Director of the museum.“ The exhibit traces the truly fascinating natural and cultural history of chocolate—a new world plant that is now cultivated in tropical zones globally and consumed almost everywhere in the world.”

Your education begins in a tropical rainforest. Chocolate comes from gigantic pods of the cacao tree. Each squash-sized pod holds about 40 large beans. The Ancient Mayans cultivated the beans, transforming them into a hot, bitter beverage. In the next room, you visit an Aztec marketplace using cacao beans as currency. You can also pay your respect to the feathered god Quetzalcoatl, who brought the sacred chocolate to the Aztec.

It’s worth mentioning that Utah has a unique tie to the history of chocolate—we were eating it before everyone else. “The Utah chocolate story is particularly interesting,” says Hanniball. “The Ancestral Pueblos bowls recovered near Blanding, Utah hold the earliest evidence of chocolate in the United States.”

Chocolate made its way into Spain where it was mixed with sugar, becoming a favorite of the elite. Get this: A typical morning for a European rich person began with chocolate served in bed with exquisite porcelain cups and saucers.The Industrial Revolution brought chocolate confections to the masses. Adorable molds of Easter bunnies, Halloween cats and other stuff is on display, along with fun advertisements and packaging.

During the weekends, guests can enjoy “Chocolate Blasts," mini-tasting sessions hosted by local chocolate geeks like Brian Riggles, head of The Utah Chocolate Society. If you were lucky enough to visit opening weekend, you could have heard him explain the difference “between fine and plebeian chocolate. The chocolate candy you see in stores, it has three percent cacao. Barely enough to mention.” There are also chocolate samplings Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Chocolate: The Exhibit was brought to Salt Lake City in part by Harmon’s Grocery, Caputo’s Market and A Priori Distribution. Matt Caputo, Utah’s chocolate expert, was thrilled to work with the museum. “Instructing the Natural History Museum of Utah’s staff and volunteers on all things chocolate has been one of the high points in my career,” he says. (If you’re craving more chocolate knowledge, sign up for one of Caputo’s Chocolate Classes taught by Matt.

And finally, there is a gift shop with chocolate to buy and eat. Local favorites fill the shelves like Solstice Chocolate. On the way out, be sure to stop by the Museum Cafe. They are serving Mezzo Drinking Chocolate. A four ounce cup holds all the deep, rich, cacao you can handle, and is the perfect way to end your visit.

Entrance to Chocolate: The Exhibit is included with admission to the museum ($11.00). For $1 more, you can enjoy a chocolate tasting. Check the website for dates and times.