Museum of Anthropology hosts history of chocolate event

Neicca Warren carves the word “love” into a Hershey’s bar at the USU Museum of Anthropology’s “History of Chocolate” Saturday at the Museum. Kate Rouse DuHadway/Aggie BluePrint

Story by Kate Rouse DuHadway

staff writer

From the ancient Mayans to the Spanish conquistadors, from French cafes to the gold miners of San Francisco, the history of chocolate is richly steeped in the history of the world itself. It is a story of how civilizations separated by millenia collided, and for anthropologists, it’s a study in the way cultures and peoples interact. In some ways, it changed our world forever.

The USU Museum of Anthropology, located on the second floor of Old Main, held its second annual chocolate-themed Saturday at the Museum February 11, just in time for Valentine’s Day. For patrons and volunteers alike, it was among the tastiest of educational experiences

“It has a richer history than a lot of people think, said Jessy Swift, program coordinator for the museum, who spearheaded the history of chocolate event. “Each country took it and they shaped it into their own thing, so you can taste it and you can go, OK, that’s Italian chocolate, that’s German chocolate, this is definitely Swiss chocolate, this is American chocolate.”

Shantel Potter explains the history of chocolate to museum visitors, while standing in front of posters depicting the uses of chocolate in various cultures around the world. Kate Rouse DuHadway/Aggie BluePrint

Swift said one of the things that surprised her the most in her chocolate research was that before the Spanish invasion and conquest of the continent, “the food of the gods” was only found in South America. Before that, chocolate, or the cocoa beans from which it comes, was unknown in Europe. It wasn’t until plantation owners began cultivating sugar cane in the Caribbean that people began mixing it with sugar, and it was a long way down the road before anybody thought of adding milk or making hot chocolate as we know it today.

From 250 BC to World War I, South America was “the chocolate hub of the world,” according to the textbook “Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage,” edited by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro. In what is now Mexico, the ancient Aztecs used cocoa beans for currency, while the elite ground them into powder and ate them with chili peppers.

When Hernando Cortez first introduced chocolate to the Spanish, they didn’t like it very much (understandably, since what the Aztecs and Mayans ate would be very bitter to our taste). When he took it to the Caribbean, however, they mixed it with sugar and it soon became a thriving cash crop. To this day, the Grenada and Caribbean chocolate companies still produce much of the world’s cacao, according to Grivetti and Shapiro.

A patron of the USU Museum of Anthropology sips hot chocolate at the chocolate tasting station. Kate Rouse DuHadway/Aggie BluePrint

To simulate the historical and cultural evolution of chocolate, the Museum of Anthropology offered hot chocolate with various mix-ins for patrons to try. There was a somewhat bitter, spicy hot chocolate powder from Mexico, lavender flavoring to represent the French version and coconut flavoring for the Caribbean. Museum interns Amy Howes, Prairie Fox and Ally McDonough researched the history of Mexican, French and Italian chocolate respectively, and displayed the information in a poster-tour of world chocolate cuisine.

The Saturday at the Museum also featured chocolate carving, watercoloring with peanut M&Ms, chocolate-trivia Bingo and a documentary about Milton S. Hershey. But why study chocolate?

“Food is one of the big ways anthropologists can study culture,” said Joelle Young, who works for the USU Museum of Anthropology. A big part of that culture, for many countries, is chocolate.

Upcoming activities at the museum include “Topsy Turvey: A Look at Carnival and Mardi Gras” on February 18, “Evolution of the Jazz Revolution” on March 3, “Unraveling the Mystery: Forensics at Work” on April 7 and “Exploring the World of Comic Book Heroes” on May 5.

For more information about Saturdays at the Museum or the USU Museum of Anthropology, visit


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