'Chocolate Around the World' at Field Museum

October 4, 2011 (NEWS RELEASE)

Chocolate Around the World is better than ever - with space for public programming, demonstrations, and special events. Come enjoy this sweet experience that will engage all your senses and reveal facets of chocolate you may never have thought of before.

Imagine a unique tree in a lush tropical environment. A seed so precious it was used as money. A spicy drink and a sweet snack. A strong craving and a sublime pleasure. Chocolate is all this and much more. Chocolate Around the World (Oct. 5, 2011 through Jan. 8, 2012) explores the fascinating relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure.

Liquid Gold from the Rainforest

Bon bons, hot fudge, frozen chocolate bars. Most of us know chocolate today primarily as a candy or a sweet dessert. But it wasn't always so. The ancient Maya of Central America knew it as a frothy, spicy drink, made from the seeds of the cacao tree and used in royal and religious ceremonies. How did humans first come to taste these bitter seeds, found deep in the pulp of a large, rough pod the size of a football?

No one recorded the event. But, says Jonathan Haas, The Field Museum's MacArthur curator of North American anthropology, it was an intensely human thing to do. "Human beings are tinkerers," Haas says. "We like to try things. And when most of your diet comes from corn, you're going to be looking for variety." So the Maya let the seeds ferment, dried them in the sun, roasted them, crushed them, added water and spices…and drank!

The fascinating first section of the exhibition concerns the cacao tree, its lowland rainforest ecology, and how it's grown today. The exhibition features a model of the beautiful cacao tree that grows within about 1,380 miles of the equator. Visitors will discover that its pollinators are midges, tiny flies that thrive in the decaying vegetable matter and other debris at the base of the tree.

The exhibition showcases replicas of tools used to grind the cacao seeds, as well as lavishly decorated drinking vessels. Chocolate at first was consumed by rich and poor. But because cacao grows only in the rainforest, it was coveted by other cultures - in particular, the Aztec. It soon became a valuable article of trade; the seeds served as a form of money, and the drink became a luxury for the elite. When the first Europeans reached the Aztec capital, instead of gold they found treasure troves of cacao seeds.

When chocolate reached Europe, it was mixed with sugar and a new craze began - cafés serving hot chocolate sprang up in every city (much like ubiquitous high-end coffee shops of today.) The exhibition explains how the insatiable European demand for this new treat made chocolate a commodity and fueled the use of forced labor on colonial plantations.

A Global Commodity and a Cultural Icon Though humans have now taken cacao from its native home in the Americas to grow it in West Africa, Indonesia, and other tropical lands, the plant remains rooted in its rainforest ecosystem. Today, many cacao farmers and scientists are working together to find ways to grow cacao profitably without destroying the rainforest habitat.

Technological advances and mass production - not to mention enormous amounts of advertising - have made chocolate part of the global market economy. A mesmerizing video in the exhibition shows a factory assembly line processing thousands of pieces of chocolate candy each hour. In addition, Chocolate Around the World displays candy packaging and advertising from all over the world, underscoring its universal appeal.

Cacao seeds are traded on the commodities market right along with pork bellies and soy. A futures stock ticker display showing cocoa prices on the world market brings this point home.

How Does Chocolate Fit into Your Celebrations? As visitors leave the exhibition, a digital interactive will ask them to share their own thoughts and memories of how chocolate figures into their own holiday traditions. Responses will be added in real-time to a large video display on the wall of the gallery. This final gallery will also be used for special programming throughout the run of the exhibition. (See below for details.)

Although chocolate is big business today, it still retains vestiges of its ceremonial history. Mexicans use it as an offering on the Day of the Dead, in the form of beans or prepared as mole. Foil-wrapped chocolate coins are given to children as "Hanukkah gelt." In fact, chocolate has a place in nearly every holiday celebration: heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for Valentine's Day, chocolate bunnies for Easter, wrapped candies for trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and cups of hot cocoa to warm Christmas carolers.

Special Programming:
Colossal Chocolate Creations

Encounter one-of-a-kind chocolate inspired creations in Chocolate Around the World. Chicago-area artists and pastry chefs will draw inspiration from chocolate-focused holiday celebrations as wall as Field Museum and Chicago icons to create colossal-sized sculptures made from chocolate and candy wrappers. Programming inside Chocolate Around the World on select days during October, November, and December. Visit fieldmuseum.org for additional programming dates and times.

Saturday, October 8; 10am-2pm

A sculptural showpiece will be created from chocolate, presented by Chicago's Palmer House Hilton.

Saturday, October, 29; 10am-2pm

Watch Chicago-area artist Ian Sherwin fabricate a large-scale Halloween-inspired origami sculpture from candy wrappers.

Chocolate Around the World
Field Museum
Starts Wednesday - Jan. 8


The lovely life-sized chocolate shoe with white chocolate embellishments (LOVE this one! It even comes in a shoe box!)

Chocolate dinosaurs with shimmering iridescent glaze (Very cute, in celophane wrapper)

Chocolate martini mix, which leads to the chocolate body paint, which leads to the Preggers anti-oxidant chocolates! (Fun little story to tell here!)

The set of faces from around the world, each flavored with the spices of the region

Bacon hot chocolate mix

Day of the Dead chocolate sugar molds

Chocolate covered popcorn mixed with pop rocks

A three foot tall s'mores kit

A bright pink chocolate workshop kit for girls

A boxed chocolate set of tools including hammer, saw, etc.

Chocolate cherry scented cologne

Luxurious silk shawl in reversible chocolate colors

Books including Intensely Chocolate; Chiles to Chocolate, Food the Americas Gave to the World; and Chocolate, the Nature of Indulgence

Chocolate bars from countries around the world including France, Italy, and Belgium,made from cacao beans from countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, Madagascar, Bolivia and Venezuela.

And chocolates with amazing ingredients like potato chips and quinoa, and one that features 99% cacao! (These final two bullets are what we could open up and taste on air)

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