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Chicago Museum Presents Chocolate Exhibit - 2002-02-18

Chocolate is one of the most popular snack foods in the United States. The average American eats about six kilograms of the sweet treat each year, but it is even more popular in Europe, where people in some countries eat about twice that amount.

A new exhibit in Chicago traces the history of chocolate and its role in culture, economics and the environment. Chicago considers itself the candy capital of the United States because of the large number of manufacturers located here.

Now, those who want to learn more about where many people's favorite candy chocolate comes from, need only head to the new Chocolate exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History, where Sophia Siskel is Director of Exhibitions. "Chocolate," she said, "is an ideal topic for an exhibition. It is something we eat all of the time, it is something we love, we crave and yet we don't know where it comes from."

Chocolate has its roots in the rainforests of Central and South America, in the seedpods of the cacao tree. Exhibition developer Anamari Golf said, "We are exploring the transformation of the seeds of a tree in the rainforest from an isolated thing to a local product to a global commodity."

Historians say the ancient Mayans appear to have been the first people to consume ground cacao seeds, sometime between the years 200 and 900. Cacao was used in ceremonies, and was traded to people unable to grow their own.

Field Museum anthropology curator Jonathan Haas says the Aztecs were among those who traded for chocolate. They considered it a luxury. Mr. Haas said, "By the time the Aztecs come in around 1300 or 1400, it is a very high status trade good. Chocolate is being used as a trade medium. They are using it as money."

He said cacao seeds were so valuable that some people would try to counterfeit them. "It is made out of clay," he said. "They would make little beans, and fake it. It was cheaper to make it than it was to get it."

Some scholars think the word "chocolate" is a Spanish invention based on the Aztec term for "bitter water." Exhibitions Director Sophia Siskel said that is at least an accurate way of describing what chocolate tasted like in the 16th century. "During those times," she said, "chocolate is not in the same forms we think of it today. It is more of a spicy, unsweetened drink. When the Spanish came to the Americas, they found chocolate, brought it back to Spain where, in order to appeal to the European palate, they added sugar."

Chocolate began to spread throughout Europe in the 1600's. In 1657, the first chocolate house opens in London. It is similar to today's coffee shops. By 1700, there were 2,000 chocolate houses in the city. Chocolate became the preferred drink of the Cardinals in Italy. Some historians think the poison that killed Pope Clement the 14th in 1774 was concealed in chocolate. Chocolate appeared in its familiar candy form in England and Switzerland the late 1800's.

Today, cacao is grown not only in Central and South America, but also in Southeast Asia and, according to Field Museum botanist Bill Berger, in West Africa. Mr. Berger said, "The greatest productivity today is in West Africa, probably because some of the diseases and pests native to America are not in West Africa. So, for those countries it is a very important export product."

Consumption of chocolate is not very high in parts of the world where it is grown. Sophia Siskel says that is partly because the product brings in much-needed income, but also because it is still considered a luxury. Ms Siskel said, "The interesting fact behind that is that many of the people who manufacture chocolate, grow chocolate, produce chocolate, are those who can not afford it. It still is a very expensive product in many of the countries producing it for us today.

Growing chocolate has been a burden for many people during the last few hundred years. By the 1600's, the chocolate trade was built on a system of forced labor and slavery. Even today, an international commission is investigating reports that some growers in Ivory Coast and Ghana illegally exploit child labor to harvest cacao seeds.

Because cacao is a rainforest crop, growers have an interest in protecting that fragile ecosystem. Anthropologist Jonathan Haas said chocolate plantations are protecting some of the world's rainforests, "because they figured out that you can grow and harvest chocolate within an environmentally sensitive zone," he continued. "One of the strategies they are using is for chocolate to become a buffer around rainforests. You can have plantations, you can have an economically-viable crop growing around rainforests and protecting that rainforest from further development."

The Chocolate exhibit will be in Chicago through the end of the year, before beginning a national tour.