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Behind the nib

‘Chocolate’ exhibition at Gilcrease sheds light on the history—and controversy—of the world’s most famous confection



A man lays cacao beans out to dry

“Oh, man. Would you like another one?”

The barista in front of me motions to the broken chocolate bar at my feet, offering his condolences over the shatter. The bar’s Willy Wonka-esque orange foil wrapper slid right out of its paper exterior to a sad chunked reality on the floor, apparently as delicate as glass. I was surprised by the bar’s fragility then, but after touring “Chocolate” with associate curator Mark Dolph, I know to expect nothing less. 

Gilcrease Museum’s newest traveling exhibit, “Chocolate,” chronicles the complete history of cacao—from discovery to harvesting, ancient traditions to modernization, meteoric rise to ethical pitfalls. 

Plan to spend about 45 minutes walking through the multi-sensory exhibit to really digest its content.

The traveling exhibit comes from the Field Museum in Chicago—one of the premiere natural science museums in the world—and has been making its rounds across the country for nearly 15 years. That said, parts of the physical exhibit feel a bit dated (fonts, the Rainforest Café-esque quality of the installations) but digital elements help recapture the attention of techies, and the historical and anthropological information featured is as relevant as ever.

Those expecting an art exhibition will be disappointed by “Chocolate.” More anthropological than anything else, it represents a bit of an evolution for Gilcrease (which usually features straight art exhibitions), offering conversation-starters for individuals looking to consider responsible sourcing or mindful eating.

Around 500 AD, Mesoamerican Indians enjoyed chocolate as a sacred indulgence, even using it as currency for trades and purchases. By today’s count, three cacao beans would score you five peppers at the market. 

Originally served as a liquid, the Mayans first roasted cacao beans in the sun, fermenting and then boiling them with water and spices. The drink boasted a subtle spice and a consistency reminiscent of some of today’s chocolate milk. The frothy concoction was regarded as liquid gold, imbibed in times of rare celebration and ceremony, and was often served in gold vessels, inscribed with glyphs and insignia representative of its owner. In celebration and ritual, chocolate was a way of life.

Flash forward 1000 years, when the Aztec’s enthusiasm for chocolate transformed into something reserved for elites only. Cacao was stored away for safekeeping alongside wealth and valuables. The Europeans thought they’d really stumbled onto something huge when they “discovered” chocolate hiding in the vaults of Mexico City. In fact, Columbus and his crew were clueless that Mesoamerican Indians had been enjoying chocolate for at least 2,000 or 3,000 years by the time the Conquistadors ransacked Mexico City.

The Spanish conquests brought cocoa to Europe, and demand for the chocolate quickly outpaced supply. As a result, chocolate became the indulgence of the elite, a delicacy reserved for the upper echelon of society members, and a mere dream of the working class and peasant Charlie Buckets of the world. 

In time, chocolate became far more ubiquitous, with production efficiency expanding the growing empire. Americans would experiment with removing cacao seeds from the naturally growing rainforest habitat and harvesting it via slave labor in the south alongside crops like sugar and tobacco, and this process would sustain temporarily. But the world’s best cacao is still produced in equatorial rainforest climates. Like terroir with fine wine, the soil and environmental conditions of the climate in which it’s grown impact the flavor and quality of cacao.

Still, despite what Portlandia’s characters would have you believe, not all aspects of cacao are trendy or romantic. To this day, the crop is still farmed and pruned by hand from the cacao tree in the high canopy reaches of the southern hemisphere’s rainforest, meaning labor conditions are demanding, and often not fairly compensated. 

Fair Trade labeling and a rise in bean-to-bar popularity has helped to combat some of this, but the overwhelming reality of chocolate remains the same: like so many others (think wine, coffee, diamonds, tobacco) it’s a labor-intensive commodity crop that, despite commercialization and streamlining, has historically been produced outside the countries that demand it. The ugly reality is that the confection is often produced through human exploitation, and at the expense of the environment. 

This reality, Dolph says, is central to the exhibit. 

One pod can make up to seven milk chocolate bars“There’s an awful lot involved in getting it from the Rainforest cocoa bean to some kind of consumable. So much of chocolate—if you talk to Glacier—it’s an industrial product. It’s not the kind of high-end product that they would manufacture,” Dolph says.

He’s talking about Glacier Confection—Tulsa’s darling chocolatier, which specializes in artisanal, craft confections made of curious flavor combinations (mojito mint, banana split, or blueberry lavender, for instance).

“They’ve turned me into a chocolate snob,” he admits. And after tasting, touching, or smelling it, you’ll know why Glacier chocolate bars go for $5 a pop, while a Hershey Bar will only cost you $0.75.

“Bill Copeland, Chief Chocolate Officer at Glacier, taught me that when it’s really good chocolate, it snaps. It doesn’t just kind of bend and fall apart. This audible snap tells me something good’s about to happen.”

I tested the theory with a few different bars—from Glacier and DoubleShot’s collaborative Maduro chocolate bar to the impulse aisle bars with the flamingoes on the packaging at Trader Joes—and it checks out. Break off a piece of good chocolate, and you see a fine point. Drop it, and it should shatter.

And when it is time to taste, true chocolate connoisseurs will tell you to rub the chocolate between your fingers before eating. This helps the cocoa butter start to warm a bit. After a few seconds, place it on the tongue, and let it melt. Behold: the art of tasting chocolate. 

Glacier’s not the only local business in town turning the mass production of chocolate on its head with a craft approach; Middle West Chocolatiers and Nouveau Chocolates in Broken Arrow are also reclaiming the trade with an artisanal mindset and creating fine chocolates in the pursuit of excellence.

There’s a lesson to be gleaned from Gilcrease’s “Chocolate”: indulgences often come at a high price for those who make them. Learn where your chocolate comes from and how those farmers and workers are treated and paid. And be willing to pay the price for not only quality, but fair trade.

Chocolate: The Exhibition
Continuing through Jan. 8
Gilcrease Museum
gilcrease.org/exhibitions/chocolate

For more from Meghan, read her article on vegetarian Thanksgiving.

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