Benjamin Franklin may be best known as a diplomat, author, journalist, and inventor, but he would also have merited another label: chocoholic.
It turns out that Philadelphia's favorite forefather not only advertised chocolate for sale in his print shop as early as 1739, but also secured six pounds of it per officer for special troop rations during the French and Indian War.
Chocolate has flavored this region's culinary and industrial history for centuries. So, it's fitting that "Chocolate: The Exhibition" will be coming to Philadelphia. It runs Saturday through Jan. 24 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and will be paired with a number of sweet events, including an opening weekend filled with chocolate tastings, mole sampling, and chocolate crafts.
The exhibition is a rejuvenated version of a blockbuster show that's been on the road since 2002; it has been seen by 2.2 million visitors in 27 museums (including the academy in 2004).
"We expected to tour this exhibit for only three years, but because of its popularity, we're going on its 13th year on the road," said Lindsay Washburn of Chicago's Field Museum, which created the exhibition. It's been entirely redesigned to include new hands-on interactive displays that show how cacao grows, how chocolate is manufactured, and how it has influenced global culinary traditions.
The exhibition tells the story of chocolate over the last 2,000 years, beginning with its natural history. Visitors will encounter a life-size cacao tree, illustrating the unique ecosystem on which our chocolate supply depends.
"That includes being sheltered by much taller trees above it in the rain forest, and then under the base is a tiny fly called a midge, which pollinates the tree and has the fastest wing beat of any insect on earth, 1,000 beats per second. Unfortunately, it's a delicate ecosystem, relying on the canopy and the midge. If you disrupt any of those factors, the cacao tree doesn't get pollinated," said Jennifer Sontchi, the academy's senior director of exhibits. "You come in with your eyes on candy, and you come away with a better understanding of what a balanced ecosystem is."
Through displays and artifacts, visitors will learn how the Mayans first turned cacao seeds into food, by fermenting, drying, roasting, and crushing them to make a drink. They can wander through a marketplace that shows how Aztecs used the beans as currency. And they can follow chocolate's journey back across the Atlantic with conquistador Hernan Cortes, who brought it to Europe, where they had the bright idea of adding sugar and created elaborate porcelain and silver chocolate services.
From there, the exhibition explores the story of manufacturing chocolate. It was served as a beverage into the mid-1800s, when the solid version that would become the basis of a $110 billion industry became available.
"That part of the story hits close to home," according to Cindy Little, historian at the Philadelphia History Museum.
Chocolate became popular and accessible in the 1700s in Philadelphia, she said, in large part due to the city's location.
"At that time, it's a prominent port city, we're not all that far from the Caribbean, so ships coming up can bring sugar here. We're involved with global trade that would bring cacao here. The other thing is, we have a growing population here, especially in the 1750s, of people who are affluent, who can experiment with new foods."
Chocolate would have been a daily drink for many Philadelphians, said Rodney Snyder, chocolate history research director at Mars Chocolate North America. A chocolate pot would have been as essential a household item as a saltshaker.
Later, the proximity of pastureland and dairy farms in the region made it convenient to produce milk chocolate, which Hershey began doing in 1900.
"Pennsylvania was really unique in that it spawned some of the largest chocolate companies in the country," Snyder said. That includes Hershey's as well as Whitman's, which closed its Northeast Philadelphia factory in 1993. (Mars didn't start here, but its Lancaster County plant is now the company's hub for processing cocoa beans, which still come through the ports here.)
"Even today, there's probably more chocolate made in the state of Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the United States," he said. "It's all an offshoot of the popularity of making chocolate in Philadelphia way back in colonial days."
The exhibition doesn't focus on Philadelphia history, but it does cover the story of chocolate manufacturing with a display of vintage chocolate molds and advertising materials.
It also discusses life on modern-day cacao plantations, and how chocolate is traded as a global commodity.
Additions from the academy include mobile touch carts loaded with specimens from those rain forests: samples of monkey fur, snakeskin, and cacao pods. The museum is also breaking out its new tech carts, which feature microscopes hooked up to monitors, so people can look at chocolate midges and other pollinators up close.
Sontchi said even those who don't love chocolate might appreciate it more by the time they leave.
"I think it makes it taste better to know all that," she said. "It's a very rich and fulfilling exhibit."
Chocolate Grand Marnier Mousse
Makes 6 to 8 servings
10 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate
Juice and zest of one orange (simmer and strain)
4 cups heavy cream, divided use
1/3 cup Grand Marnier
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
Orange slices and mint leaves, for garnish
1. Add chocolate and orange juice into 1 cup of heavy cream (brought to simmer).
2. Melt chocolate, stirring easily.
3. Remove from heat and add Grand Marnier.
4. Whip egg yolks till creamy with sugar.
5. Add to chocolate slowly.
6. Whip 3 cups heavy cream until soft peaks form.
7. Fold in chocolate mixture.
8. Place into pastry bag and pipe into chilled glasses.
9. Refrigerate until needed. Take out of refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
10. Can garnish with orange segment and mint.
Per serving (based on 8): 470 calories; 6 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams sugar; 35 grams fat; 195 milligrams cholesterol; 835 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.
Chocolate-Rubbed Steak with Cocoa Sweet Potato Fries
Makes 2 servings
For the steak:
2 New York strip steaks
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt to taste
For sweet potato fries:
2 large sweet potatoes, cut to desired thickness
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. For the steak: Combine the spices, sugar, and salt and mix well. Place the steaks on a sheet tray and rub the spices onto both sides of the steak. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Grill the steak over medium heat to desired doneness.
2. For the sweet potato fries: Fry (or brush lightly with olive oil and bake) the sweet potatoes until golden brown and cooked through. Place in a bowl and toss with combined cocoa, salt, and cinnamon. Serve with chocolate-rubbed steak.
Per serving: 946 calories; 90 grams protein; 117 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; 204 milligrams cholesterol; 722 milligrams sodium; 21 grams dietary fiber.