CHOCOLATE Exhibit Opens June 11, 2005

From the Ancient Rainforest to the Supermarket Shelf,
The California Academy of Sciences Takes Visitors on a Delicious Expedition

SAN FRANCISCO (February 3, 2005) - A unique tree in a lush tropical environment. A seed so precious it was used by the Aztecs as a form of money. A spicy drink and a sweet snack. A heavenly craving and a sublime pleasure. Chocolate is all this… and much more. Explore the relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure in Chocolate, from June 11 to September 5, 2005, at The California Academy of Sciences. Chocolate will immerse you in a sweet experience, engage all your senses, and reveal little-known facets of this tasty treat. You'll explore the plant, the products, the history, and the culture of chocolate through the lenses of botany, ecology, anthropology, economics, conservation and popular culture. And if all that sets your mouth to watering, we'll send you off with a chocolate treat to satisfy your cravings.

Liquid gold
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. They found these bitter seeds deep in the pulp of a large, rough pod the size of a football, let them ferment, dried them in the sun, roasted them, crushed them, added water and spices…and drank!

This chocolate drink was originally consumed by rich and poor alike. 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, served in lavishly decorated vessels. When the first Europeans reached the Aztec capital, instead of gold they found treasure troves of cacao seeds.

The exhibition explores the commoditization of chocolate by Europeans, and the use of forced labor on colonial plantations to meet the insatiable European demand for chocolate and its new soul-mate, sugar.

Rooted in the rainforest
Another fascinating part of the exhibition concerns the cacao tree itself (Theobroma cacao), its lowland rainforest ecology, and how it's grown today. A beautiful tree with delicate flowers, cacao grows only within 20° latitude (about 1,380 miles) of the equator. It is relatively small, no more than 30 feet high, and grows naturally in the rainforest understory, in the shade of larger, canopy trees. At the Academy, the rainforest display will include a live colony of 80,000 Leaf Cutter ants, which harvest leaves from the rainforest (including cacao leaves!) and use them to cultivate gardens of fungus.

Most of the rainforest trees we use, like rubber trees and Brazil nuts, are taller trees that capture the sunlight. But cacao is different. Its pollinators are midges, tiny flies that thrive in the decaying vegetable matter and other debris at the base of the tree. Midges stay close to the ground, and that explains another unusual feature of the cacao tree: its flowers grow directly on the trunk and lower branches, where the midges can reach them.

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 ecosystem. When cacao is taken out of its natural environment and grown separately, in cleared, unshaded plantations, it doesn't thrive. The soil becomes dried out and eroded, and the tree becomes susceptible to molds and diseases. To counteract that, growers may add fertilizers and pesticides that can harm both the workers and the environment. Today, though, many cacao farmers and scientists are working together to find ways to grow cacao profitably without destroying the rainforest habitat.

Global commodity… cultural icon
Sustainable cacao-growing, environmental protections, and supporting the genetic diversity of wild cacao are increasingly important topics today, for economic as well as botanical reasons. Thanks to technological advances and mass production - not to mention enormous amounts of advertising - chocolate has become a part of the global market economy. Cacao seeds are traded on the commodities market (under the name "cocoa"), right along with pork bellies and soy.

Even so, chocolate retains vestiges of its ceremonial history. Mexicans today 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 "Chanukah gelt." And in the U.S., of course, 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.

The value of chocolate can be measured in sales - $13 billion a year in the U.S. - or in symbols. In this country, for example, chocolate is closely linked not only with love but with patriotism: chocolate has been issued to U.S. soldiers since World War I, and it has even accompanied astronauts into space.

These popular uses of chocolate, along with a fascinating array of chocolate advertising and packaging and a look at myths about chocolate, are all part of the Academy's new exhibition. For supplemental materials about chocolate, including health facts, quotes, and recipes, please click here.

Public Programs
The California Academy of Sciences is planning an array of public programs, films and performances, cooking demonstrations, guest speakers, and other special events highlighting the many facets of chocolate. A few special events are listed below. For more program listings, please call (415) 379-8000.

Opening Festivities - Aztec Dancing
Saturday, June 11 at 11 am

In Pre-Hispanic times, Central Mexico was one of many cacao-growing areas of Mesoamerica, and the Aztecs used bitter chocolate drinks in many of their ritual ceremonies. To mark the opening of the Chocolate exhibit, Ernesto Hernandez Olmos and the Xaguia Gura Ensemble will perform Aztec Indian dances that pay homage to the ancient Nahuatl-speaking cultures of Pre-Columbian Mexico. Wearing colorful outfits, masks, and spectacular plumed headdresses inspired by the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, the dancers will move through the Academy's halls to the rhythm of indigenous instruments such as ankle rattles, hollowed log drums, conch shell trumpets, bamboo flutes, and clay whistles.

Chocolate Carving Demonstration
Saturday & Sunday, June 11 & 12, from 10 am - 5 pm

Watch as award-winning food sculptor Arthur Escoto carves a block of chocolate weighing more than 200 pounds into a sculpture inspired by the natural world.

Chocolate Festival
Saturday, June 18 from 10:30 am - 5 pm,
Saturday, July 30 from 10:30 am - 5 pm, and
Saturday, August 20 from 10:30 am - 5 pm

Celebrate the taste and culinary history of chocolate by participating in a full day of demonstrations and activities for families.

Friday Afternoon Features
Every Friday afternoon from June 17 - September 2

Enjoy a delicious variety of chocolate product samplings and demonstrations, such as hand massages with chocolate lotions or delectable dessert tastings. New demos will be offered every Friday afternoon throughout the duration of the exhibit.

Organizers and Sponsors
Chocolate and its national tour were developed by The Field Museum, Chicago. This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

 

The California Academy of Sciences, the fourth largest natural history museum in the United States, is home to Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and the Natural History Museum. The Academy is beginning an extensive rebuilding project in Golden Gate Park. Pritzker prize-winning architect Renzo Piano is designing the new Academy, which is expected to open in 2008.

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