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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Isabella Esplin and Michelle Martin look over "Chocolate: The Exhibition" at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — Michelle Martin was in chocolate heaven.

The top of her head reached the second of four rows of plastic chocolate replicas in an 8-by-12-foot wooden box.

Wearing a blue and purple dress over pink leggings and a pink striped long-sleeve shirt, Michelle crouched down and pretended to eat one of the chocolates.

"Yum! Yum! Yum!" she said.

Her mother, Kelly Martin, said Michelle loves chocolate. They got a sneak peek at "Chocolate: The Exhibition," Friday at the Natural History Museum of Utah. It opens to the public Saturday and is on loan from The Field Museum in Chicago until June 1.

Out in the hall, the smell of chocolate filled the air outside double doors leading to a primer on cacao beans, their history and tasty product.

"Utah has a rich history with chocolate," said Amy Bornkamp, The Field Museum's senior manager of exhibition planning and partnerships.

Scientists found evidence that the Puebloan people, who lived in what is now Utah between 750 and 800 A.D., were the first people in the United States to consume chocolate. This makes Utah, home to a growing bean-to-bar movement, a fitting temporary home for the exhibit.

Puebloan settlers likely traded for the beans with those in Mesoamerica, explained Natural History Museum's anthropology collections manager Glenna Nielsen-Grimm.

The exhibit follows cacao — from bean, to drink, to solid, to bar — as a drink in the Mayan and Aztec eras to its origins in Europe and uses today as a fruit in South America and candy in the United States, Mexico and Europe.

Museum member Geneva Lawrence visited "Chocolate" with her children Moira, 12, and David, 9, who sat on cushioned seats in the shape of chocolate truffles. She said she liked the exhibit's ability to reach all ages.

Her children used a touch screen to mix chocolate bar ingredients and were able to see how chocolate chips are made. Portions of the exhibit were lower, so her children could see them at eye level. The historical information was enough to hold her interest.

"It works at a level that works for them. They're going to come out of it having learned something, but there's also brain food for me," Lawrence said.

The exhibit is further evidence of the value of the cacao bean, which has always been highly regarded. The Aztecs traded it as currency, and there is evidence of counterfeit beans in that era as well, Nielsen-Grimm said. The Aztecs gave chocolate as a luxury to warriors and nobility.

Visitors to the museum can take part in an interactive Aztec marketplace where they can discover the ancient buying power of the beans.

Chocoholics everywhere will be pleased to know that the bean has health benefits as well: It has been correlated with lowering blood pressure and can act as a stimulant.

Over time, chocolate has evolved into a bar, with sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla and other flavors added to mask the bitter, and sometimes burnt, flavors.

The past decade has seen a return to single-sourced bars in the United States, where the chocolate maker will work directly with a farmer, boosting the economy of the source bean and of the manufacturer. The bars contain fewer additives and flavors, allowing the natural flavors of the bean to shine through.

Utah's bean-to-bar movement is on the rise. "Chocolate: The Exhibition" will bring further publicity to this movement, said Chantalle Bourdeau, local food and chocolate ambassador for A Priori Specialty Foods Distribution.

The state is already home to award-winning Amano Artisan Chocolate and emerging companies Millcreek Cacao Roasters and Solstice Chocolate.

Opening weekend features chocolate tastings, where attendees can learn about flavor nuances, on-site chocolate experts and hands-on programs for kids. These activities will also be available on President's Day and Memorial Day weekends.

Those interested in chocolate tastings can also come Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at select times, for $1 plus museum admission; children's chocolate tastings are on most Thursday mornings.

While at the Natural History Museum of Utah, "Chocolate: The Exhibition" will feature regular and special programs. These include the movie "Nothing Like Chocolate," the Ultimate Chocolate Festival on March 22 and 23, a Chocolate Valentine's dinner at the City Creek Harmons and the Chocolate lecture series. For more information visit nhmu.utah.edu

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with extended hours till 9 p.m. on most Wednesdays.

Admission: Adults, $11; Seniors, $9; Youth (13 to 24) $9; Children (3-12) $8; Free for children under 2, museum members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty.

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