Chocolate lovers gather at the Museum of Cultural and Natural History
By Susan Peterson
Compared with the same amount of cream cheese on a bagel, it has just about an equal portion of fat -- but no cholesterol.
But it wasn't nutrition that drew about 150 chocolate lovers to the University Museum of Cultural and Natural History on Valentine's Eve -- it was the mystery behind chocolate.
A lecture on the legendary food, along with a demonstration on making hot chocolate, was conducted to enlighten the chocoholics among us.
"The combination of information told in a pleasurable way was fun for all," said Barbara Haber, curator of books at the Schlesinger Library and founder of the Radcliffe Culinary Friends.
The event was cosponsored by the Culinary Friends and the Friends of the Harvard University Museum of Cultural and Natural History.
Barbara Whitlock, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, knows about chocolate's origin and why it became such an important food. Whitlock studies the evolution of the cacao tree -- the seeds from which chocolate is made -- and its wild relatives, native to lowland wet tropics in countries from Southern Mexico to Bolivia.
Whitlock explained that cacao seeds are harvested from melon-like pods growing on the tree. The seeds and pulp are scooped out and fermented, dried -- which gets rid of bitterness and gives the chocolate brown color -- and ground. Cocoa butter is extracted in the grinding process.
The demonstration involved showing how to make hot chocolate as it has been done traditionally through the centuries. An old tale says that the Emperor of the Aztecs was served 50 pitchers a day.
Drinking hot chocolate continues to be a way of life in some Latin and Central American countries, including Mexico.
"People drink hot chocolate at breakfast, and at First Communion celebrations it would be served along with tamales," said Teresa Bardawil, a curatorial assistant at the Gray Herbarium who is from Mexico. "And people used to drink it inside of churches."
Bardawil and Gustavo Romero, a research associate at the Herbarium who hails from Venezuela, produced hot chocolate for the audience by mixing Mexican chocolate (which differs in texture from American or European chocolate) with vanilla, almonds and sugar, water and milk, and boiling the mixture.
After the demonstration, the crowd wandered through the gallery of Aztec exhibits, sipping champagne and sampling dipped chocolates, cakes, and chocolate bread.
One of the participants was Dun Gifford, '60, JD '66, who is president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization involving food education, in East Cambridge.
"I learned how absolutely embedded chocolate is as a cultural ritual," Gifford said.
The program marked the first time a jointly sponsored food event was held by the Radcliffe Culinary Friends and another area of the University.
Said Haber, "It was a marriage made in heaven -- there wasn't a crumb left!"