When I moved to California a decade ago, a colleague drove me from one end of the Coachella Valley to the other.
We started in Palm Springs, the stylish desert town known for its sleek modernist architecture and pool party vibe, and drove east. We rambled past Indio’s manicured polo fields, home to the Coachella music festival, all the way to Mecca, a community embedded in one of the most prolific agricultural regions in the nation.
That’s where my colleague stopped the car at a roadside produce stand, scurried away and returned with a cold beverage that he shoved into my hands.
“Just take a sip,” he urged. I stared down into the plastic cup.
The drink resembled a thick milkshake but was speckled with flecks of brown. It tasted complex, like toffee and caramel and spices, but I later discovered it contained just two ingredients: dates and ice cream.
At the time I didn’t know much about dates, the sweet product of the date palm tree. I didn’t realize the date shake was the one food this desert area claims for its culinary identity. And I had no idea that this tiny, thumb-sized fruit launched the region’s agricultural industry.
All I knew was that this drink tasted like some kind of magic, like finding an oasis in the desert.
“The Indiana Joneses of the plant world”
The fact that dates exist in this country, along with many foods we enjoy today in the United States, can be attributed to botanical explorers. These explorers have been called “the Indiana Joneses of the plant world,” by historian Sarah Seekatz, referring to how they traveled the world in search of seeds and cuttings for cultivation in the U.S.
Toward the end of the 19th century, David Fairchild was one of those explorers. The botanist, who created his own career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is responsible for introducing more than 200,000 crops to the U.S., from mangoes to soybeans, as well as the Japanese cherry trees that bloom annually in Washington, D.C.
Around the same time, Indio became a significant stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad line between New Orleans and Los Angeles, and the government hatched a wild idea: Farming the desert.
In search of crops that could survive the often harsh conditions, Fairchild headed for the Middle East, and his colleague Walter Swingle traveled to Northern Africa.
“This was the grand experiment,” said Patricia Laflin, a historian who has written several books about the Coachella Valley and helped develop popular date grove Oasis Date Gardens. “Everybody supported trying to make this land usable.”
From Baghdad to Algiers, Fairchild and Swingle combed farmland, filling mud-packed burlap sacks with seeds, cuttings and date palm shoots. The date was relatively unknown to Americans at that time, since date palms are not native to North America, but the Coachella Valley’s arid conditions and sandy desert soil seemed suitable for the plant.
In 1904, the U.S. Department of Agriculture date experimentation station was established to test the viability of the date as a desert crop. Within a couple years, the shoots gathered by Swingle began bearing fruit, and the date industry exploded.
“Little date shops sprang up along the road all the way to Palm Springs, but it was still so new that people didn’t know what a date was,” said Connie Cowan, archivist for the Coachella Valley Museum and daughter of Don Mitchell, one of the original date growers. Her father did his best to educate the masses, though, including one move that became the stuff of family legend.
“When my father drove my mother to New York state for their honeymoon, he packed the car full of dates and handed out samples the whole way,” Cowan said.
Currently, more than 90% of the dates consumed in the U.S. are grown in the Coachella Valley.
In 1928, local entrepreneur Russ Nicoll bought a modest roadside stand with his life’s savings and built it up with scrap railroad ties and old telegraph poles. Looking for a way to distinguish his date business from the other fruit stands, Nicoll experimented with different offerings, like almond-stuffed dates and dates rolled in shredded coconut.
The birth of the date shake
When Nicoll heard a story that some Middle Easterners existed solely on goat milk and dates, he was inspired to create a milky, date-filled beverage — a ice-cream milkshake blended with dates — and the date shake was born. By the late 1930s, Nicoll’s roadside stand, Valerie Jean Date Shop, was more of a roadside destination than an attraction, and it thrived for decades.
Nicoll died in 1987, and the roadside stand closed, but his date shake survived. These days date shakes aren’t only sold at small roadside stands anymore. Several Palm Springs-area growers, sellers and restaurants sell the sweet treats, though the shakes vary dramatically based on technique. Some of the most popular include Hadley Fruit Orchards (made with date puree), Oasis Date Gardens (soft-serve ice cream and organic dates), and Lappert’s Ice Cream (date ice cream with caramel fudge).
At Shields Date Garden in Indio, employees make about 500 date shakes per day during the busy season. Jessica Duenow, public relations manager at Shields, calls date shakes a “rite of passage” for visitors.
The Shields shakes are made from date crystals, a process developed and patented by founder Floyd Shields in 1936, in which ripe dates are dried into small pieces about the size and shape of oatmeal flakes. For the shake, water is added to the crystals, turning it into a thick date paste, which is then blended with vanilla ice milk, which has significantly less butterfat than ice cream.
“You can’t come to the valley without getting a date shake,” she said.
“We don’t use ice cream because we find the crystal paste is already rich and full-flavored,” Duenow said. “Ice cream would only mask the natural sweetness and taste of the date. And why would you do that?”