"Chocolate: The Exhibit," on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah now through June 1, takes visitors on an engaging journey through the history of one of the world's favorite foods as it has evolved over more than 3000 years. The exhibit begins before visitors even enter the gallery, with the smell of chocolate letting noses know they're on the right track. Once through the doors, visitors enter a tropical rain forest, the home of the cacao tree that provides beans once considered so valuable they were used as currency.

The next section of the exhibit explains cacao's early history in the Americas, where it was used to make spiced and fermented drinks consumed by elites in Mayan and Aztec society. As cacao spread by trade throughout the Americas, it became accessible to ordinary people. The exhibit details the earliest evidence of cacao use in the United States, from a Pueblo village site near Blanding, Utah. Chemical traces of the cacao bean have been found in pottery from the site, dating to about 800 C.E.

Once the Spanish began colonizing the Americas, they brought cacao beans back to Europe, where they were made into sweetened hot chocolate, initially an expensive drink consumed by royalty. Chocolate was not made into a solid candy until the 1850s. The final portion of the exhibit is devoted to chocolate's modern history, including marketing, manufacturing, and packaging.

After making my way through the exhibit, I was definitely in the mood to taste some chocolate, and fortunately there is plenty available in the gift shop at the end of the exhibit. Visitors can buy and take home local chocolate, made from carefully selected beans by Salt Lake area food artisans.

If you can, I would recommend signing up for a chocolate tasting, which includes an opportunity to talk with a museum facilitator, plus samples of locally made chocolate. The tastings are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. During the run of the exhibit, the museum will offer lots of fantastic chocolate programming, including "Chocolate Blasts" - short lectures by chocolate makers, archaeologists, and other experts on this amazing bean. The Chocolate Blasts are available every Saturday, and every 2nd and 4th Friday.

Saturday and Sunday March 22-23, the museum will host an "Ultimate Chocolate Festival" with bean grinding demonstrations, art activities, Mayan dance performances, and dozens of chocolate treats to taste."Chocolate, The Exhibit" is included with museum admission, and tastings are $1 extra.

Natural History Museum of Utah 301 Wakara Way Salt Lake City, Utah 84108 801-581-4303801-581-4303

Tickets $8-$11

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Photo by Marsha Maxwell