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The word “chocoholic” did not come to be a part of the popular lexicon by chance. For centuries, people have enjoyed and even obsessed over the substance thought to be, among other things, an addictive aphrodisiac. But how much do those of us who consume chocolate today really know about it? How is it made, how was it discovered, where does it come from? A new exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia answers all those questions and even some you never thought to ask. Chocolate: The Exhibition is set up as a chronological journey through the history of chocolate. Guests must wander a bit through the museum to get to the entrance to the exhibit in the far corner. The journey begins in the rain forest, where guests are greeted by a replica of a cacao tree, complete with blossoms, leaves and cacao pods, which hold the precious seeds from which chocolate is made. Apparently cacao trees will only grow in rain forest conditions, such as those found in South America, Mexico and Africa. Visitors learn that the process of “growing chocolate” is a nearly magical, complex procedure that requires many players, such as the endangered monkeys that spit out the seeds, planting more trees as they do so. From the lush rain forest, guests next enter the world of the ancient Mayans, the first to have the idea of using cacao seeds to make a spicy drink, and the Aztecs, who used precious chocolate seeds — which didn’t grow anywhere nearby — as currency. This part of the exhibit has colorful murals and authentic Mayan and Aztec chocolate-making tools and drinking vessels. The true value of this part of the trip is that it drills into visitors’ heads the way chocolate was seen in these societies — so rare that the seeds themselves were worth more than gold, so precious that it was only available to royalty and as sacrifices to the gods. In an age when people can walk up to any corner newsstand or vending machine and pay less than a dollar for a packet of M&Ms, the exhibit establishes the drastically different value chocolate had in the ancient world. Knowing this makes it is easier to understand why, when the Spanish came to the Americas, the Aztecs gave them cacao seeds instead of the gold they sought. From here, the exhibit follows chocolate’s introduction into European society, where chocolate was first mixed with sugar. A map of the world helpfully shows where and how fast chocolate’s popularity grew around the globe. A few interesting tidbits: Europe’s passion for chocolate spurred the slave trade during America’s early years — slaves were needed to harvest sugar — and the Industrial Revolution brought about the use of steam engines to mass-produce large amounts of chocolate. All this history and movement from one culture and region of the world to another makes for a complex story. Things get even more complicated in the next phase of the exhibit, which explains the modern methods of chocolate making. Monitors loop a short video showing huge vats of chocolate and conveyor belts loaded with truffles, � la “I Love Lucy,” but the process itself and the steps involved are quite complicated. My companion and I, after reading all the explanations and watching the videos, were somewhat relieved to move on to the section on advertising. Vintage chocolate tins and magazine-page advertisements abound, along with candy wrappers and explanations of how name brands changed the industry. An adjoining section on economy features a live ticker showing the current rates at which sugar, cocoa and coffee are trading on the commodities market. The last section of the exhibit goes back to the rain forest, with a focus on preservation. The world’s consumption of chocolate shows no signs of slowing, resulting in the need for a larger supply of cacao. Because cacao trees need specific conditions to grow properly — attempts to grow them in other places and conditions have not been entirely successful — the rain forests must survive in order for the world’s chocolate demand to be met. The exhibit concludes, conveniently, in a chocolate lover’s heaven: a gift shop that sells everything from bars of official Chocolate Exhibition chocolate ($8.99) and chocolate-related films “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Chocolat” and “Like Water for Chocolate,” to chocolate-scented candles and shelves piled with every imported chocolate delight imaginable. You won’t be able to resist trying one of the many exotic sweets for sale, especially those featuring more sophisticated flavors like rum, marzipan and hazelnut praline. My companion and I also tried one of the tiny slivers of 77 percent pure chocolate, just to get an idea of how different the milk and sugar mixture we consume is from chocolate in its purest form. Exhibit sponsors Godiva and Jubilee Chocolates of Philadelphia are also well represented in the shop. For all the fanfare and local news coverage surrounding the exhibit’s debut, the exhibit was surprisingly light. For my companion and me, the exhibit took just under an hour to view, even after reading and observing the details of each room thoroughly. We had no trouble moving through at our own pace, noting that other parts of the museum seemed to be attracting more pint-sized patrons than the corner devoted to chocolate. This led me to a suspicion that was confirmed the further into the exhibit we moved. Just as adults appreciate the subtleties and sensualities of good chocolate better than children, they will more fully appreciate the history, economics and science of the chocolate exhibit. This is a gourmet exhibit for the chocolate lover, not the perfect day trip for kids. Case in point: The few kids that we saw seemed more content to color pictures of Mayan gods than read the detailed exhibit notes, written in both English and Spanish. This exhibit is more an opportunity for adults to learn about something they enjoy in a childlike way. You’ll feel as if you’re back in fifth grade as you look through tubes to observe tiny cacao flowers, press buttons to guess which countries are the biggest consumers and exporters of chocolate, and turn knobs to see the complex contemporary chocolate-making process. The museum does offer plenty of kid-friendly exhibits and activities, so a visit is still a must for escaping the summer swelter. But rather than paying the extra admission price, send the kids to see the dinosaur skeletons while you wander through the indulgent exhibit. If you’re determined to interest your child in chocolate at an early age, a better bet might be the educators’ resources that the museum offers online at no cost, which are more kid-friendly. So when the heat gets to be too much, take an afternoon to head to the Academy of Natural Sciences with friends, check out Chocolate: The Exhibition, then sample one of the decadent desserts specially featured in Ecology, the museum’s caf�. If you go: Chocolate: The Exhibition runs now through Sept. 6 at the Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, (215) 299-1000. Museum hours are Monday though Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information and exhibit ticket prices, visit www.acnatsci.org/chocolate/index.html.

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