Organic dates and Sex? This is what I encountered as I recently drove down Highway 111 near Indio in the California desert. I was in search of some of the old date stands that lined the desert highway back in the 1950’s and 60’s that my family used to visit when we traveled to nearby Palm Springs for a vacation. Our family ‘station wagon’ (the name ‘SUV’ hadn’t come into our vocabulary yet), would stop in front of one of the date stands, we would load up on delicious dates and even swig down a ‘date milk shake’. Later on, if we were lucky, we might even get a glimpse of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack that used to hang out in glittery Palm Springs.
Unfortunately, I found that almost all of the date stands in Indio have disappeared over the decades, replaced by miles of gated communities and shopping malls that stretch continuously for about 25 miles from Palm Springs to Indio. My last grasp at childhood memories had almost disappeared until I came upon Shields Date Gardens on Highway 111 in Indio. This business was started by Floyd Shields in 1927 and is a major producer and exporter of dates for the U.S. and the rest of the world.
As I drive into the Shields parking lot, I like the ‘retro’ feel of the old building, but am even more amazed at the sign that advertises the free film, the “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” Fortunately, this is not an X-rated film, but shows how the pollen from one ‘male’ date tree is used to hand pollinate 100 ‘female’ trees using a small Ketchup Squirt Bottle. Seems like sex has lost all of its romance these days ……
I’ve always wondered why dates are so expensive. Well, they are very labor and time-consuming. It takes 15 years for a date palm to mature and each new date tree is created by transplanting ‘pups’ from the parent tree; these pups then take another 15 years to produce.
Workers climb the date trees with ladders to cover the date bunches with bags to protect the fruit from insects and birds and these trees can easily reach 100 feet tall. Once the dates are harvested, it then takes time and patience to sort the dates by hand, removing the unripe ones that need more time to ripen.
Date trees also require a huge amount of water irrigation – about 9 ‘acre-feet’ of water each year for each tree. This is equal to the volume of water that would cover 9 acres of land to a depth of one foot! And it has to be irrigated water – date palms do not like natural rain water.
End of an Era!
As I later drive back to my luxurious Palm Desert hotel with my large box of dates in hand, I feel a twinge of nostalgia. Yes, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack are gone, and also the little date stands that used to dot the dusty highways. But I walk away with a small smile – knowing that Shields Date Garden is still here to continue the tradition of dates ….and their sex lives … in the desert.
Now how about a Date Recipe:
- 1 cup (165 g) pitted dates, halved
- 1 cup (250 ml) boiling water
- 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
- 80 g unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup (135 g) mashed cooked pumpkin or Butternut squash
- 1 1/2 cup (225 g) white flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp Allspice
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp maple syrup
- 1 cup (160 g) lightly packed brown sugar
- 60 g unsalted butter
- 1 tsp corn syrup
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) thickened cream
- 4 Tbsp Rum
- Pre-heat oven to 365 F (185 C)
- Bring the water to a boil; remove from the heat and let the pitted dates soak for 10 minutes until soft. Use a spoon to mash the dates until they become pulp.
- Cream together the sugar and butter with electric beaters until soft.
- Fold in the mashed pumpkin (or squash) and date mixture until smooth.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and beat with electric beaters for several minutes until thoroughly combined.
- Grease the ramekins or cupcake tins with melted butter or cornflour oil. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pans and bake for 20 - 25 minutes until done (the pudding should spring back when lightly touched).
- Remove the puddings from the oven; gently remove them from the ramekins and let cool while you prepare the Caramel Sauce.
- Stir the brown sugar, butter, corn syrup and salt over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat slightly; stir occasionally for about 5 minutes until the mixture thickens. Reduce the heat and gradually add the cream and Rum. Stir a few more minutes until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- Serve the individual puddings on a plate, topped with the Caramel Sauce. If desired, garnish with whipped cream or ice cream.