November 2005 Issue
Flavor to Savor
Franklin Park Conservatory's new exhibit pays homage to all things chocolate.
Much as I love my cousin, her most recent pronouncement leaves me horrified: "'I had to go to the acupuncturist three times to finally give up chocolate. I used to have to have a piece every day - can you believe it?" she announced.A member of our family giving up chocolate without it being pried from our cold, dead hands? Such a renunciation is unheard of.
Which may be why chocoholics around the state and beyond will undoubtedly be camped outside the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus the night before "The Amazing Chocolate Tree" opens on November 12. After all, it doesn't pay to be a slacker when chocolate and the anticipation of consuming it is at stake. Sure, they'll pay polite attention when exhibit lecturers are discussing sustainable chocolate farming in the shade of the rainforest, preferable to short-term yields in the blazing wasteland of a jungle that has been clear-cut. And they'll promise to read all about the cacao pods, which serve as the basis for the beloved sweet treats.
But throughout it all, noses will be quivering, hot on the trail of chocolate truffles and steaming cocoa. And the exhibit promises to satisfy all cravings. Visitors will have the chance to pair chocolates with strawberries and champagne and learn the art of packing a perfect Valentine's Day gift basket sure to be heartfelt. And who better to help spike chocolate fever than National Public Radio commentator Steve Almond? The Boston resident followed his bliss and hit the road in search of his favorite childhood candies, and ended up drooling through the country's few remaining small candy companies. He chronicled the experience in Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Underbelly of America, published last year. Almond, who will conduct a reading from his book at the Franklin Park Conservatory on January 28, is proud to say he's eaten candy every day of his life - even pureed in ice cream after his wisdom teeth were removed.
It's only fitting that the man who keeps between 3 and 7 pounds of candy in his house at all times - not counting his secret warehouse stash of Kit Kat Limited Edition Dark -put the subject matter of "The Amazing Chocolate Tree" exhibit in perspective.
"Chocolate is self-love," Almond explains. "It's the most complex and satisfying flavor in the natural world. And while it's true that it does have lots of amazing chemical components, the real reason we love it so much is because it's half fat and half sugar. You do the math: That's 100 percent pleasure. Chocolate is also a luxury item, which increases its value to us psychologically.
And it's a forbidden pleasure for most of us growing up - which only makes us want it more. For me, the pleasure of having lots of candy around is the chance to share it with others. When you get into hoarding candy for yourself, well, that's a pretty dark place."
Of course, there can be hormones at work with chocolate cravings, and they can lead down some dark-chocolate alleys. (Anyone who's ever rampaged through the house at 3 a.m., licking the inside of crumbled candy wrappers, knows the desperation.) And there's phenylethylamine, the chemical in chocolate that simulates the sensation of falling in love. For many of us, that means falling in love with more chocolate.
The exhibit's ancillary programs for children will meet Ohio curriculum objectives, with such subjects as life cycle and the interdependence of plants and animals. Programs for adults feature topics such as the exploration of rainforest depletion and species loss, and fair-trade practices in developing nations.
"But, adds Paul Redman, Franklin Park Conservatory's executive director, "they will be subtle lessons. "People won't know they're being educated, they'll be having fun." The "lessons" include the opportunity to step into the 20-foot Flower Power geodesic dome to see a giant cacao flower being fertilized overhead, and going underground in the Himalayan Mountains to tap the roots supporting the tree.
Guests can also morph into Willy Wonka, mixing and cranking gears in the exhibit's chocolate factory. Machinery will gurgle and churn in air perfumed by the essence of milk chocolate. A stroll through the conservatory's garden provides a cocoon filled with chocolate-scented plants and the heady richness of cocoa hull mulch. (Be sure to stop at the gift shop on the way out for a melt-in-your-mouth souvenir.)
"Chocolate is sexy, it's fun, and everyone loves it," Redman says. "They just don't realize it comes from a tree in the rainforest."
Education has become a key component of the mission of Franklin Park Conservatory and her five sister gardens, part of a new consortium to create the first traveling exhibition program for botanical gardens in North America. After three years of work, "The Amazing Chocolate Tree" is their inaugural joint venture, presented by Atlanta Botanical Garden; Dallas Arboretum; Denver Botanic Gardens; Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh; and Franklin Park Conservatory.
From an initial list of 30 or 40 ideas, chocolate naturally came out on top. "We wanted something that would catch attention," says Redman, who fondly remembers his grandmother's chocolate cake, which he looked forward to on visits to her Texas home. "And if I can have a chocolate truffle, that's a very good thing."