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Really old-school chocolate

Written by Rebecca Sodergren on

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18th century colonists -- chocoholics? Really?

“The perception people have today is that the important drink in the colonies in the 18th century was tea,” said Andrew Gaerte, education manager of Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park, Downtown. “But really, chocolate was just as important to the colonists, and to Native Americans as well.”

But the chocolate drink wasn’t what we would recognize today as “hot chocolate.” Visitors to Fort Pitt Museum this weekend will get to discover the difference at “Colonial Chocolate Weekend.” There are two programs:

05082013chocolady• From 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, the “Colonial Chocolate Evening” will feature presentations by Mr. Gaerte and representatives from the Mars candy company. Mr. Gaerte will discuss the role of chocolate in Western Pennsylvania and the misconceptions people have about it.

Shipments of chocolate often came into the area 2,000 pounds at a time, he said -- “and there weren’t 2,000 people living here at that time, so that means people were drinking a lot of chocolate.”

Chocolate was fairly affordable, he said, so it wasn’t just the upper crust drinking it. It was even issued to soldiers, who were “usually considered the lowest of the low” in 18th-century society, he added.

Chocolate was consumed primarily in drink form in the 18th century, but there wasn’t much sugar added to it. Instead, many spices and extracts were commonly added -- anise, nutmeg, cayenne, vanilla, even mustard. (The bonneted lady at left is adding orange peel.)

So visitors who sample the chocolate drink this weekend may be surprised when a bitter, spicy flavor hits their lips.

Admission for Friday evening is $5 and includes museum admission. Pre-register by calling 412-281-9285 or e-mailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

• At Saturday’s “Summer Saturdays at the Fort: Food & Beverage” event (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), visitors will be able to sample the same chocolate drink, but they’ll also get to help roast coffee beans (depicted at top) in an 18th-century roaster as well as watch colonial re-enactors prepare venison, buffalo and other common 18th-century Pittsburgh-area foods.

“We do a lot of programming on food and clothing,” Mr. Gaerte said, “because everyone still eats and wears clothes, so it’s a way to hook people in and make the past seem less far away. Most people today wouldn’t have to worry about fighting in an 18th-century battle” -- but they do eat and dress themselves.

He added that what today is a trendy movement -- locavorism and seasonal eating -- was plain old necessity in the 18th century.

“You didn’t have strawberries in the middle of winter because they weren’t growing.”
If you haven’t been to the Fort Pitt Museum, you can expect to see two floors of exhibits featuring the Pittsburgh area during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the region’s later growth. The museum has artifacts, lifelike figures and some recreated spaces such as a trader’s cabin and a barracks room.

Saturday’s special events are free with museum admission, which is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for children ages 6 to 17, and free for younger children and History Center members.
Also, starting this weekend, Fort Pitt Museum will be the only place in the state west of Harrisburg where visitors will be able to buy American Heritage Chocolate, the Mars historic chocolate, which will be sold in both bar and drink-mix form. Depending on the success of sales, the Heinz History Center may start to carry it at a later date.

Mars Chocolate photos

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