Chocolate: A delish journey at the Academy of Natural Sciences
A cold and bleak winter season may be approaching but the Academy of Natural Sciences might have the key to make it a bearable one: Chocolate.
On Oct. 11 the museum is set to open an exhibit that promises to engage your senses and “reveal facets of this sumptuous treat” that you never thought about before.
“It is such an enduring topic. Everyone has a connection to chocolate and everyone wants to know about it,” said Jennifer Sontchi, director of exhibits at the academy.
“Chocolate: The exhibition” will take visitors to the many facets and the story behind one of the most beloved treats in the world — from a visit to the natural ecosystem where the cacao seeds grows to the many rituals it has been part of throughout history.
“My favorite is the first section. You walk into the rainforest and you see a life-sized model of a cacao tree,” Sontchi said. “Audience will learn about the ecology of this tree, which is endangered, as well as all the connections that are required for chocolate to exist. I think just right there is a take away, especially for a lot of younger people.”
Visitors will be able to examine cacao seed pods up close and engage with animated machinery that turns cacao from seed to a sweet solid bar. Followed by a cacao harvest on a Mexican plantation and the preparation for market.
“You go into Mesoamerica in a section about the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. There were people before the Maya that ate something from the cacao tree but they are the first documented group of people who actually processed these beans,” Sontchi said.
The Maya fermented the seeds, dried them in the sun, roasted them, crushed them, then added water and spices to drink it. “This was the food of the people, it was not considered a luxury or an elite thing,” she said.
The Aztecs took it to the next level. For its rarity and inaccessibility, they considered the dark pebbles as valuable as money and a drink reserved for warriors and nobility. “The Aztec thought chocolate had divine origins, that their feathered serpent deity ‘Quetzalcoatl’ first brought it to the people in a spicy, frothy drink,” Sontchi said.
The big before and after happened when the Spanish added sugar and transformed the bitter drink into the sweet cup that millions of people crave and enjoy today.
“The exhibit touches on so many aspects, it has interactives and speaks to different levels of intergroupings of families. But one thing to remember is that it is also about candy, about fun,” she said. “I think there is something for everyone in here.”
According to Sontchi, the exhibit was originally designed at The Field Museum in Chicago. It was shown in Philadelphia a decade ago, but the Academy brought it back to introduce it to a whole new generation of visitors.
A pretty neat aspect about “Chocolate” is that the entire exhibit will be presented in both English and Spanish, opening the experience to a much wider audience.
It also aims to be an extreme sensory experience. Chocolate scent will be spread throughout the exhibit, and of course, chocolate will be available to taste.
“I think once you go through and learn about it,” Sontchi said, “it will taste richer to you because you will know the story. You will know all the steps that happened between the tree and you. When you take that bite, that appreciation will make everything taste better.”