Sunday, February 28, 2010

Philadelphia Chocolate, Ancient and Contemporary

On my way to San Francisco in December, I got bumped off my connecting flight and waylaid in Philadelphia overnight. Though it left me in below-freezing weather without a coat, the stopover opened up a couple of new routes in my chocolate travels.

First, in the midst of all the mayhem, USAir gave me a voucher which I just used to cover the flight for my upcoming trip to Mexico City.

Second, I found out that the commuter train that stops at the Philadelphia Airport also stops directly across the street from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The permanent collection contains exactingly and respectfully curated carvings and sculptures from towns and sites I've visited in Central America, like Guatemala's Chocolá and Belize's Caracol. And a special exhibit of Mayan vases factors in a slew of anecdotal information about chocolate. Among the American Mayanists profiled in this "Painted Metaphors" exhibit are M. Louise Baker (whom the Penn Museum stationed in Mexico and Guatemala between 1908 and 1935 to paint water colors of artifacts and who commented about the Harvard-trained archaeologist Robert J. Burkitt that "I liked him very much and he was very kind to me--fed me chocolate drops from a little canvas sack whenever he met me") and W. Jeffrey Hurst (the Hershey Company's resident scientist whose 20th- and 21st-century work to find traces of the chocolate chemical theobroma in ancient vessels has been extensively chronicled in Sophie and Michael Coe's The True History of Chocolate, among other places).

One stop I didn't get to make on my impromptu trip to Philadelphia was the John & Kira's store. But I've always liked getting the socially-responsible chocolate company's lavish calendar and I've long agreed with uppity magazine editors across the country that their chocolate fig pumpkins for Halloween are incredibly photogenic. Though I still haven't visited the store (and I'd like to wait for some of this snow to melt before driving across the state), I learned a lot about John & Kira's this month in my research for the talk I gave about chocolate and sustainability at Chatham University. Their confections are remarkably affordable considering how perfectly smooth the ganaches are and how graceful each bon bon is (with a subtle design drizzled in chocolate on top to indicate the flavor). The little wooden boxes of "ladybugs" and "bees" explode with the flavors of mint from a local school garden, raspberries from a local farm, and lavender honey from a local apiary. And the new "root" chocolates, made with a Pennsylvania-brewed alcoholic root beer, just generally kick ass.

I had a chance to talk about John & Kira's (along with the Grenada Chocolate Company, Amano, Tcho, Guittard, and Guatemalan cacao) recently on WYEP radio in Pittsburgh.


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