In 1924, an Iowa-born mining engineer named Floyd Shields met and married a schoolteachers named Bess in Los Angeles. Almost immediately the newlyweds packed up and moved to Indio.
The town was initially a railroad stop and water station for Southern Pacific trains traveling between L.A. and Yuma, Arizona. However, artesian springs found at the turn of the century in Thermal and Coachella resulted in a growing agricultural community. One of the new crops that had literally taken root was the date palm.
The Shields — with no farming experience between them — intended to become date ranchers. One wonders how they idealized their future at the time. Did they imagine lying in hammocks during the desert’s temperate months, watching the profits swaying above them amid the palm fronds?
The discovery of the huge desert aquifer, stretching from the base of the San Jacinto Mountains to the Salton Sea, and the nutrient-rich soil set off a mini land rush when people discovered they could buy 5-acre parcels with just walking-around money. Urban dwellers who didn’t know a plow horse from a whorehouse were suddenly on their way to get rich off the land. And the exotic fruit that would rain down like pennies from heaven was dates.
But why dates?
The groves that Floyd and Bess planted almost 100 years ago.
Crude ladders were fixed to the palms and extended as the palm grew.
It’s not as if it hadn’t been tried. When Father Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brothers conquered California for God and Spain, they brought with them seeds and cuttings to grow grapes, wheat, figs, and dates. While the descendants of those original date palms populate the state, the missions where they were planted were too near the coast to be productive. The one exception was San Ignacio in Baja California, an arid region that provided optimal conditions. Agricultural entrepreneurs tried the experiment again during the Gold Rush, speculating that dates would be the perfect food to feed prospectors looking for the next mother lode. But, again, the imperfect climate, the random nature of pollination, and the decade required to come to full production resulted in another failed experiment.
On paper, they had it right. Dates would have been an ideal food for the 19th-century West. It is, in fact, an almost perfect food. Rich in vitamins and minerals, its high sugar content is a potent source of energy. It also alleviates an array of human ailments, especially constipation, a constant complaint among early settlers whose diet consisted of bacon, wild game, beans, and fried dough. Cultivated dates are thought to have originated in western Pakistan around 7000 B.C. and in early Neolithic cultures throughout the fertile crescent from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The largest variety of cultivars originated in what is now Iraq. Along with figs, dates have long been the staple food of the Middle East, and today annual world production is approximately 8.5 million metric tons with Egypt, Iran, and Saudia Arabia the leading producers.
The change in the date’s California future came about in the 1890s when philanthropist Barbour Lathrop enlisted a young botanist named David Fairchild to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to embark on a new career as a global plant explorer. Ever since the Great Famine in Ireland, in which an estimated 1 million people died and another 2 million emigrated because of a blight that destroyed the single cultivar of potatoes planted on the island, agriculturalists in developing countries urged diversification, both for the safety of the farmers and the economy but also to use the vast resource of land to develop profitable exports.
Over the next few decades, Fairchild introduced hundreds of new plants to the United States, including avocados, quinoa, and kale. He also investigated date varieties across North Africa and the Middle East. While Fairchild was gathering dates, a research station was set up near Indio to study the feasibility of planting dates and citrus on top of the newly discovered aquifer. It took a decade, but by 1915 the word was getting out that the Coachella Valley was ideal for one of the world’s most ancient and beloved foods. Today, the valley is responsible for more than 95 percent of the date production in the United States.
Floyd Shields conducts his date sex education seminar.
Whatever level of ignorance Mr. Shields brought with him to the desert, he obviously overcame it in a very short time. In only three years, he introduced his own hybrid dates — the blonde and the brunette — in an effort to promote his ranch products. If it sounds like there was an undercurrent of sex in the name, the assumption would be correct.
Mr. Shields’ most pressing problem after getting his dates to grow was selling them. This period of the 1920s in the Coachella Valley not only represented new agricultural opportunities, it also was the beginning of a new industry based on a relatively new invention: the automobile. Cars, in turn, were responsible for weekend tourism. Hitherto, excursionists were limited to the short distances a horse and buggy could travel in a day or the prescribed destinations of a rail line. In 1929, it was possible for the first time to pick a locale 100 miles away and travel there and home again over a two-day weekend. Suddenly, exciting places such as Santa Barbara, the southern Sierras, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake, Laguna Beach, and Palm Springs were all within reach for the average Joe and family.
Palm Springs was already getting a pretty big reputation among the Hollywood crowd, and where the stars went, their fans were sure to follow. While Palm Springs was basking in the international spotlight, Indio wasn’t exactly sitting on its ass. It became the first city in the Coachella Valley to incorporate in 1930 and six years later put on the Riverside County Fair and Coachella Valley Date Festival (an earlier date festival in 1920 and 1921 fizzled). In those days, residents and visitors were inexplicably pretending to be a remnant of the Wild West, and so the first 10 years of the festival had a rather incongruous cowboys-and-dates theme. After World War II, however, it was decided to tie the date festival in with its eastern origins, and an “Arabian Nights” theme was introduced along with a Queen Scheherazade contest and camel races. It wasn’t a huge stretch. A number of Floyd Shields’ neighbors/competitors were already capitalizing on the exotic Arabian connection, and they were capturing a fair amount of the motoring tourist trade on old U.S. Route 99.
Floyd Shields needed a gimmick and he needed one fast.
Date palms are individually climbed and manually pollinated.
This is where to enjoy a date shake and a burger at Shields Date Garden.
In an age where blue laws were strictly enforced and matters of prurient nature had every local preacher condemning sinners from their pulpits, the mild-mannered former mining engineer took a considerable risk. In the mid-1950s, with the tourist trade booming (by 1955 it seemed like every family in America was out on the road in their huge sedans), Shields introduced and narrated a slideshow called The Romance & Sex Life of the Date.
Granted, a lot of the 15-minute slideshow (Floyd initially showed it in the date garden, but it is now screened in the “Romance Room”) deals with the complicated, time-consuming, and physically exhausting process of date farming. For instance, because date palms have to be worked manually, date ranchers must climb each tree (some of which grow up to 70 feet) at least six times per year to perform tasks such as pruning and hand pollinating. Also, while date palms hate rainfall, each tree requires the equivalent of 120 inches of rain per year in the form of irrigation. In other words, date palms like to stand in muddy puddles.
The sexy part of the presentation has to do with pollination. Date palms are dioecious, meaning they are both male and female plants. Only the female plants bear fruit. Before man began cultivating them, the wind had to carry the pollen (a white powdery substance) from the male plant to the female plant and deposit it perfectly on top. Despite the fact that a single male palm can pollinate 100 females, it was a rather inexact method. Manually, pollination hasn’t really changed much in the last 9,000 years. A worker climbs up the male palm (usually with a ladder), extracts powder, collects a good amount, and then climbs up the females and deposits it. As each bunch grows, they are periodically thinned, so the healthiest dates can grow larger. After nine or 10 months, the dates ripen and are harvested.
The Shields knight is a desert icon.
This way to the show.
The Romance & Sex Life of the Date packed them in, but Floyd was not done with his salesmanship. A couple years later, he introduced date crystals, a sort of concentrated date sugar (still sold in the Shields gift shop) that is a prime ingredient of the date shake at Shields and, to my mind, what sets it apart from its myriad competitors.
When I was a kid, we spent summers at
a family cabin in Lake Arrowhead that had been built by my great-aunt Myrtle in the early ’30s. Every Saturday morning, my father would load my sister, our friends, and me with change and send us off to The Malt Shop in Cedar Glen (opened in 1946, it still exists today), a round trip that took four to five hours. Why parents never seemed interested in going remained a mystery until I became a parent. The highlight of the trip was the date shakes. Those musty, caramel-ly shakes were sublime, their only drawback for a kid being the annoying bits of unblended dates and the occasional half-ground pit.
Shields solved this problem by making the date crystals into a paste that is blended into the shake. The Shields date crystals milkshake is now, of course, world famous. To be sure, there are many other purveyors of excellent date shakes throughout the valley, but I am a loyalist.
I became a loyalist a couple years ago when I was driving down Highway 111 and came across Floyd Shields’ third gimmick: the tall knight with shield and sword pointing to the showroom.
It may be hokey, but like the pink elephant at the car wash in Rancho Mirage, it made me instantly change whatever immediate plans I had (in the case of Shields, an hour lunch from jury selection) and swing into the parking lot. As I sat there, I realized I hadn’t had a date shake since The Malt Shop when I was 12 years old.
Not having much time, I got my shake to go. I was instantly transported ... the indescribable flavor hit me with waves of sweet nostalgia. Halfway back to the courthouse, I did a U-turn and headed back to buy some packets of date crystals. I’d need another fix soon, and it was imperative that I introduce my wife and daughter into the Cult of Date Shake. I didn’t care if the judge and the bailiff scolded me for being late. I was on a mission, one that Floyd Shields ordained before I was born.
Couscous With Dates
2 cups water
½ teaspoon pink Himalayan salt
½ ounce couscous
4 teaspoons olive or avocado oil
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon roughly chopped mint
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup roughly chopped and pitted medjool dates
½ cup roughly chopped and toasted almonds
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped green onions
Bring water and salt to a
boil in a saucepan. Add couscous and stir. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff and transfer to a large bowl.
Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, and spices in a small bowl. Drizzle over couscous. Mix in chickpeas, dates, almonds, cilantro, and green onions. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for an hour before serving.
Serve alongside chicken tagine and a shredded carrot and orange salad.
Sentinels of malted mixology.
There are more than 3,000 cultivars worldwide. These are the most popular in the Coachella Valley.
Origin / Morocco
This is the beluga of the date world, arguably the plumpest and juiciest. Best eaten when it achieves an amber-brown color.
Origin / Algeria
This date far exceeds any other in export value in the North African countries where it is cultivated. A semi-dry date, it is popular with Coachella Valley growers for its high yield.
Origin / Iraq
Small but super rich and sweet, the Barhi turns golden brown when dried. It doesn’t have the astringency that others possess in the unripened state and is sometimes harvested at that stage for salads and other dishes.
BLONDE AND BRUNETTE
Origin / Indio, California
Floyd Shields developed these hybrids in 1927 by combining two date varieties. Plump and sweet, these dates produce Shields’ date crystals.
Origin / Northern Iraq
An excellent baking date, the Zahidi is semi-dry with tons of syrup in its golden meat.
Origin / Iraq
Amber-colored with a chewy texture that appeals to many date enthusiasts, the Halawi is prized as a snack date.
Kent Black's Date Bread
2 cups roughly chopped Zahidi or Halawi dates
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
¼ cup roughly chopped Luxardo cherries
1 cup hot water
⅔ cup brown sugar
½ cup local avocado honey
4 tablespoons ghee
4 tablespoons bourbon or brandy
1 egg, beaten
2 cups sifted whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon pink Himalayan salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a tablespoon of avocado or safflower oil to coat a 1-inch-deep by 8- to 10-inch-square baking pan.
Combine dates, pistachios, cherries, water, sugar, honey, and butter. Add beaten egg and liquor. Sift together
flour, baking soda, and salt and add to liquid batter. In a standing blend, mix for no more than two minutes at medium speed.
Pour into baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Let cool completely before serving.
Tip: Coat your knife with flour to prevent dates from sticking to the blade.
Cans of date sugar call to the home cook.