18th-century chocolate: Enjoy a chocolaty weekend at Fort Pitt Museum

On a cold winter's night, you might go home, heat a cup of milk and then pour the liquid into a mug -- you know, that one that your grandmother bought you two Christmases ago -- that contains cocoa powder. The chocolate aroma rises as you stir the concoction to life. A moment later, you sample the rich flavor. Cue the commercial-worthy face of closed eyes and a blissful smile.

However, if you flash back to the past, let's say 300 years ago, this is not what you would be drinking.

Unlike the powdered hot chocolate beverage consumed by most modern Americans, colonists historically served a dark chocolate drink.

So, what's the difference?

Fort Pitt Museum is here to help you find out. America's favorite sweet treat is being featured at the Fort Pitt Museum with the help of Mars Chocolate North America in the museum's first Colonial Chocolate Weekend event.

First opened in 1969, the Fort Pitt Museum -- which covers the history of Pittsburgh from the French and Indian War through the American Revolution and up to the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s -- is the ideal choice for an event like this, said Andrew Gaerte, the museum's education manager.

"It's the time where Pittsburgh is born," he said.

It's no wonder they chose such a mouth-watering topic for this weekend's historical happenings.

Tonight, a vast history of the chocolate made by 18th-century colonists and its evolution into our own confectionery will be blended into a sweet evening mix.

Mr. Gaerte said that although the museum has done interpretations in the past on a smaller scale, this will be the first large public event dealing with chocolate in the 18th century.

Dressed suitably in 18th-century-styled clothing, Mr. Gaerte and a Mars Chocolate History Ambassador will be demonstrating the tools colonists used to turn cocoa beans into chocolate.

"Folks from Mars Chocolate will do an hourlong program that goes through how chocolate is made from the roasting of the beans to the adding of various spices and things to get to the final bar form," Mr. Gaerte said. "So visitors will definitely have a full sensory of smell and sight and some of the various things that go in."

Mars Chocolate North America -- makers of M&Ms, Snickers and numerous other candy aisle favorites -- collaborates with museums with the purpose of sharing their knowledge of chocolate and its history spanning from 1500 B.C. to the 21st century. American Heritage Chocolate is a creation of theirs "to let you taste history," their website explains. The colonial-style drink will be sampled and sold.

Rodney Snyder, a chocolate history research director at Mars, said guests "can expect to be transported back in time to see, touch, smell and taste how chocolate was enjoyed by soldiers in the mid-1700s. Visitors can hold a cocoa pod, smell roasted cocoa beans and watch chocolate being produced on a heated lava stone metate as it would have been made in 1750."

But the chocolate won't be in our popular candy form. It wasn't eaten; it was a drink that you could find being served in practically every household regardless of social class, age, gender or race.

"The purpose of this presentation is to break down some of the misconceptions about chocolate in the 18th century," said Mr. Gaerte. "It was drunk by everyone out here from Native Americans to the military officers." The bitter delight, he said, was consumed in large quantities even after the 18th century.

The recipe of the chocolate is sprinkled with mystery. Researchers from Mars Chocolate, based in Mount Olive, N.J., once led a team to collect historic recipes, but because many recipes listed the ingredients without any measurements, it took a year to create the blend that American Heritage Chocolate sells today, said Mr. Snyder.

Though the chocolate is "spicier and not quite as sweet as ours," Mr. Gaerte said, you'll be pleasantly surprised when you travel back in time to unwrap the great past of chocolates.

You can enjoy this piece of chocolate history tonight from 6:30 to 8 for $5. Admission on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is $6 for adults.

Admission includes the demonstration, American Heritage Chocolate samples, additional snacks and beverages, and access to the museum's exhibits. The event will be held at 101 Commonwealth Place at Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park, and guests are encouraged to pre-register by calling the museum at 412-281-9285 or emailing Mr. Andrew Gaerte at apgaerte@heinzhistorycenter.org.

There is a chart available listing parking spots for visitors on the Fort Pitt Museum website as well as directions on how to get from there to the museum.

This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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