Utah museum's chocolate exhibition tells sweet history

Published February 12, 2014 2:49 pm
Exhibit • Research shows Utah may have had some of the earliest known cacao bean consumption in North America.
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It's not just modern-day Utahns who are sweet on chocolate.

Researchers say that the Ancestral Pueblans living near Blanding were consuming the ground cacao bean as early as A.D. 750.

This exciting new piece of Utah history is one of many facts to ponder while visiting "Chocolate: The Exhibition" at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

On tour from the Field Museum of Chicago, the exhibit takes visitors on a trip through chocolate history. Starting in the tropical rainforest where cacao trees flourish, it travels through the Mayan and Aztec cultures where the ground beans were turned into a spicy drink, and then moves into the New World, where it became the sweet treat we enjoy today.

Whenever an outside exhibit comes to the Natural History Museum, local curators try to add a Utah component to the show, said Glenna Nielsen-Grimm, the museum's anthropology collections manager.

And new research, published in 2013, provided the link they needed for this show. The research showed evidence of cacao in pottery from 11th-century burial sites in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. As a follow-up, researchers also tested seven bowls excavated along Alkali Ridge, a prehistoric farming community near Blanding in southern Utah.

Six of the seven bowls from the Utah site contained traces of cacao, making it some of the earliest known chocolate in North America, said Nielsen-Grimm.

Since chocolate "is not native to Utah or the U.S., it had to have been brought here," she said, "probably through migration."

While some scientists are skeptical of the research, it forces archaeologists to rethink the widely held view that the early people of the Southwest had little interaction or connection with their neighbors in Mesoamerica.

Last week, fourth-grade students from J.E. Cosgriff Catholic School toured the new exhibit, the first of many Utah schoolchildren expected to see the show before it closes on June 1.

Most of the children were surprised at chocolate's centuries-old history.

"Chocolate goes back so far," said a surprised Bella Hicken. "I thought it was invented not very long ago."

"It's cool to think it has been around that long," added Violetta Wharton.

Their teacher, Megan Gayle, said the new Utah chocolate research is just one more piece of information she can use to excite her students about Utah history and the Ancestral Pueblans.

"It's great to tie it with something that the kids know and love," she said.

The exhibit, which visitors will smell long before they find the entrance on the museum's second floor, includes a mix of hands-on activities including cocoa grinding and arts and crafts.

The museum has planned tastings, films, lectures and cooking demonstrations to highlight the numerous facets of chocolate. There also is a souvenir store that sells a variety of Utah-made chocolates.

"We couldn't offer an exhibit about chocolate," said museum director Sarah George, "without offering a taste of chocolate."


Chocolate: The Exhibition

Where • The Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City; 801-581-4303.

When • through June 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Wednesday, when the museum stays open until 9 p.m. (Closed March 26 and April 30 for special events.)

Admission • Adults, $11; seniors and youths (13-24), $9; and children (3-12), $8. Free for museum members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty with ID; and children 2 and younger.

Tastings • For an additional $1, guests can visit the chocolate tasting area to sample different kinds of chocolate, learn about the chocolate-making process and discover Utah's chocolate offerings. Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4 p.m.; Sunday, 1-3 p.m. Special children's tastings offered Thursday mornings; times vary.

Details • http://www.nhmu.utah.edu



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