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City Desk

Obsessing over improbably sweet nuggets of ecstasy


By Tyler Morrison

Every year, my wife and I spend a couple of weeks in Arizona at the end of winter. In addition to being a damn fine time to be away from Montana, it affords us the opportunity to enjoy a few fruits and vegetables which we won’t see a ripe version of for a few months. Peaches, blueberries, asparagus-all the things for which we typically must wait until later in the year- available at every corner market. This alone can make life seem incredibly unfair. But nothing strikes me crueler than Arizona’s abundance of fresh dates. I have a mild obsession with those gooey, silky, improbably sweet little nuggets of ecstasy.  And considering the journey of the modern-day date palm, maybe they should be a bigger part of all of our lives.

In search of additional crops for American farmers to cultivate, the U.S Department of Agriculture developed a team of “Agriculture Explorers” in 1898. Searching the world, these intrepid men-heroes really, if you ask me- returned with new varieties of sweeter oranges, avocados, mangos, and the date palm.

Unfortunately, simply planting a date seed does not guarantee a commercially viable product. The seeds vary widely and are incredibly unpredictable. Before dates could be planted with any amount of certainty, favorable growing conditions had to be established. USDA explorer Walter Swingle  returned to Algeria to study growing conditions in 1900. As Swingle took temperature readings and soil temperature, he decided that the conditions were very much like those in California's hot, arid Coachella Valley, sometimes referred to as the American Sahara. Deep aquifers existed under the California valley providing perfect conditions for dates. Swingle brought back large offshoots of the date palm, weighing approximately 60 pounds, cut from the bottom of the plants that would produce trees identical to the parent.

In order to introduce Americans to what was, for many of them a new food, Coachella Valley date growers capitalized on exotic imagery and fantasy associated with the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. The timing for such an advertising campaign aligned with the success of Hollywood films like The Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra. Women’s fashion, architecture, and jewelry were also experiencing similar influence.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 stoked public intrigue, along with the introduction of mummies into pop culture. One purveyor of the Coachella Valley actually wrote to try and obtain dates from King Tut’s tomb to put on display in his date shop.

Well into the 1950s, date shops were a common occurrence along California Highway 111 from Palm Springs to Mecca, attracting tourists. You could purchase your dates in a shop shaped like a pyramid, or Sniff’s Exotic Date Garden sold them from tents like those used by the nomadic tribes of the Sahara.

One of the most well-known date shops that still exists today is Shields Date Garden, established in 1924. Floyd Shields lured in customers with his suggestively named lecture and slide show, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”

There are pictographs in the pyramids of priests doing a ceremony around the female palms, waving the male flowers to increase the pollination, and they are hand-pollinated to this day to ensure a reliable, successful crop. Climbing into the 50-foot female date palms, workers wind their way around the spiky branches of the crowns, spraying little puffs of yellow pollen gathered from the flowers of male palm onto each flower of the female trees.

In the late 1940s, the Coachella Valley farmers and boosters revved up their marketing strategy by hosting an annual International Festival of the Dates. Business and civic leaders encouraged townspeople to dress up for the duration. If you went to a movie in Indio, your ticket might have been taken by someone in harem pants. At a restaurant, your waitress might be wearing boleros, or the produce guy at the grocery store would be dressed as a genie.

Gardens of date palms stretch mile after mile through the Coachella Valley. More than 90 percent of the dates harvested in the U.S. are grown here. One of the most popular varieties is the Medjool date.

All the Medjool dates can be traced back to a single oasis in Morocco. Nine offshoots taken from the Oasis of Boudenib, Morocco, are the source of all the present trees. But now, in Morocco and Algeria, where the Medjool originated, the palm has been wiped out by disease. Some Americans are trying to help by giving back. Although the future of the date in the middle east in uncertain they certainly aren’t going anywhere here in the U.S.

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