Chocolate the star at Cranbrook Institute of Science

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
After a long journey, fermented cacao seeds finally morph into mankind’s favorite guilty pleasure.

Who doesn’t dig chocolate?

Recognizing this universal appeal, the Cranbrook Institute of Science is hosting what’s likely to be a sure-fire winner in “Chocolate: The Exhibition,” up through Jan. 7.

Created by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, this info-rich show explores the science of chocolate production, as well as its cultural impact on producers and consumers.

Like much large-scale, New World agriculture through the mid-19th century, slavery played a considerable role in the production of cacao and sugar alike, industries originally centered in Central America and the Caribbean.

“The exhibition does a nice job covering both the good and the bad of the story,” said Cameron Wood, Cranbrook’s curator of collections and anthropology educator. “True cane sugar was introduced after the conquest of Mesoamerica and became the driving force of much of the Atlantic slave trade.”

A quick refresher: Chocolate comes from the small, fatty seeds embedded in large, reddish pods that hang off the cacao tree, found only in tropical rain forests at the time of the Spanish conquest.

The Mayans, who lived adjacent to these forests, cultivated cacao to create a much-prized drink that was both bitter and foamy.

Among the Maya, according to Woods, the drink was available to all social classes.

Chocolate comes from the small, fatty seeds embedded in large, reddish pods that hang off the cacao tree.

But in the arid north of Mexico where the Aztecs had their empire, seeds had to be imported.

“It was a long-distance, luxury drink for the Aztecs — only for the wealthy” Wood said.

Indeed, cacao was often used as a form of currency. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reached the Aztec capital in 1519, he found storerooms packed with cacao seeds — not the gold he had anticipated.

As it happens, the Aztecs put their own spin on the treat, he noted, adding vanilla, allspice, a plant related to pepper, and ground blossoms.

“The foam was considered the finest part,” Wood said, generated by repeatedly pouring the concoction from one vessel to another.

As the beverage spread into Europe, people quickly started adding sugar. But here, too, at least in the early years, it was a drink for the rich.

“It’s like pineapple,” Wood said. “In the early Renaissance, chocolate and pineapple were both signs of great wealth.”

The masses got there due in 1875, however, when Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter perfected a recipe for inexpensive milk chocolate by adding powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé.

In today’s cacao production, one downside has been that economies of scale encourage farmers to clear entire forests, so the land can be densely planted with cacao trees. As an exhibition panel notes, cleared fields require the addition of fertilizer, and full sun weakens the plant, making it more susceptible to pests and disease.

Because of chocolate’s worldwide popularity, this has resulted in the loss of much tropical rain forest. And in West Africa, where much of the world’s production has moved, there have been charges that the industry exploits child labor.

But back to that bitter drink the Maya and Aztecs favored. Cranbrook will host tastings of the Mayan “homebrew” at the museum the week of Thanksgiving, as well as a Chocolate Bus Tour on Dec. 2 to Mindo Chocolate in Dexter, a boutique producer of fine Ecuadoran chocolate.

And ever the scientist, Wood has experimented with his own formulation, which included water, a little corn massa, cacao, honey and chili powder.

His verdict? “Certainly an intriguing change of pace!”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

The show spotlights some common chocolate products made in the past.

‘Chocolate: The Exhibition’

Through Jan. 7

Cranbrook Institute of Science

39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.

10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

Noon-4 p.m. Sun

$21 adults (includes regular $13 admission and $8 for “Chocolate”); $15.50 children 2-12 and seniors older than 65 ($9.50 regular admission, plus $6)

Dec. 2: Chocolate Bus Tour

(248) 645-3200