If vanilla has come to stand for all that is plain, bland and unkinky, what can we say about its opposite, chocolate? That it's best when drizzled over a lover's quivering thigh. The tantalizing taste of chocolate is linked with the holiday of love for a reason, after all.
The atmosphere at the Houston Museum of Natural Science has turned downright sensual with the museum's new show, "Chocolate: The Exhibition." It may demystify the melty treat for you a bit, but the taste remains the same -- just not quite the same as when people first started tasting it.
"Earlier on, chocolate was consumed as a drink," says Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the museum's curator of anthropology. "And it didn't have sugar in it -- it had peppers in it, or a mix of cornmeal." It wasn't until the beans of the cacao plant were introduced to the European world, as a result of the Spanish colonization of the Aztec and Mayan regions of Central America, that someone thought to sweeten the dark brew.
The Aztecs were also known to use the cacao beans as money. "We see evidence of cacao beans being counterfeited in pre-Columbian days," says Tuerenhout. "It's funny to read that there was concern on the part of merchants that they might be given fake money."
The main producers of chocolate these days are in Africa, although the bulk of its consumers are in Europe and North America. This transfer of goods from warm to cold climes makes a certain amount of sense: Chocolate substitutes for sunshine and fresh air all winter in northern Europe. Hot cocoa, anyone?