Palm Springs: Date Capital USA
Story by Renee Sklarew
America’s date capital can’t even claim the fruit as native.
Palm Springs, California is home to a sunny oasis known as the Coachella Valley. Here, 80-foot tall palm trees cover more than 6,500 acres and yield a prized fruit that earns the area its reputation as the “Date Capital of the United States.”
Dates grow in large clusters like grapes and are partially dehydrated before eaten. They are sweet—even sweeter and larger than raisins—with a caramel-like flavor. Besides eaten straight, dates are used as a natural sweetener in foods like smoothies and baked goods. There are ten popular varieties (including the four leading types, Deglet-Noor, Medjool, Barhi, and Zahidi), but aficionados most favor the Medjool, which is large, soft and very sweet. Quality dates are amber in color, elongated, plump, translucent and shiny.
The date palm was imported to California from the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1800s and planted in the Coachella Valley in 1907 by the USDA as an experimental crop. The trees flourished, and now these farms produce more than 90 percent of the nation’s total dates.
“The valley’s soil and climate are very similar to the Middle East,” explains Jessica Duenow, creative director of Shields Date Garden in Indio, California. “We have the perfect combination of extreme heat, and no humidity, plus water supplied by the rerouted Colorado River. They say if you can get 100 days of 100-degree weather, then you have the perfect harvest. We achieve that every year.”
The Shields family came to the Coachella Valley in the early 1920s to start a date farm. Floyd and Bess Shields had no farming experience, but they had a passion for growing and selling dates. Floyd realized that most Americans were unfamiliar with the fruit, so he created a multi-sensory visitor experience to both educate and entertain. Shields produced a film called “The Romance & Sex Life of a Date,” which is still shown today at Shields Theater. It demonstrates the labor-intensive work of the palmeros, skilled farmhands who tend date palms.
The Shields built a serene botanical garden beside their palm groves. Paths through date palms and desert plants meander beside a picturesque lake. The Shields’ Biblical Garden includes 14 religious scenes, seating for meditation, and colorful desert mountains as a backdrop.
Shields Date Garden has a charming patio café where date-centric dishes like pancakes with dates, bacon, and date butter are served. “We use Deglet Noor dates because they are mild and not quite as sweet as other dates,” says Duenow. “My personal favorite are our dates wrapped in bacon using plump Royal Medjool dates, which are big and sweet. We stuff the dates with a slice of jalapeño, blue cheese, and prosciutto, then drizzle them with a shallot demi-glaze and balsamic reduction.” Another notable menu item is Shields’ signature date burger, topped with Deglet-Noor dates, bacon, and blue cheese. “These ingredients are the perfect companions, because they’re both sweet and savory,” she says.
Other date farms, like Hadley Fruit Orchard and Oasis Date Gardens offer samples and sell gift boxes containing dates rolled in coconut, dates stuffed with nuts, and delicious date-nut cakes. You’ll find dates in local products, too, like The Date Lady’s date-flavored barbeque sauce and D’vash Organics date nectar.
Throughout the greater Palm Springs area, dates are on menus at casual eateries as well as sophisticated restaurants. Sherman’s Deli serves a delicious “Oasis Salad” that combines dates with greens, cabbage, corn, and avocado. Date-lacquered squab with preserved artichoke, micro sorrel and Fresno chilis is an elegant dish served at the luxe La Quinta Resort & Club.
The California Date Commission conducts research and testing on dates. In addition, the Commission supplies locally-harvested dates to hotels, resorts, and restaurants to incorporate into menus. In a Valley known for its exuberant festivals, the Commission sponsors the annual Date Harvest Festival in October where festival-goers can taste a wide variety of date products.
Don’t miss your chance to sample a Coachella Valley date milkshake. They’re complex and satisfying, a frosty, sweet mixture of ice milk and date crystals. “I feel like when coming to Coachella Valley, it’s a right of passage to try a date shake,” says Duenow. “Shields has been in business since 1924, and we are the original shake makers. Mr. Shields was an innovator that invented date crystals, made from pure dehydrated dates that we use in our shakes.”
You can see a working grove from the Shields east parking lot, but you can’t walk into date groves where the palms grow: “Our dates are organic, and the fields are often filled with snakes, insects and thorns,” explains Duenow.
There’s so much to do in Greater Palm Springs: The region offers a stellar lineup of entertainment. Choose from world-class golf courses, Jeep rides in the desert, boutique shopping, farm-to-table dining, star-gazing expeditions, haute swimming pools, car racing, musical festivals, Mid-Century Modern furnishing shops, and mountain climbing, to name a few. But foodies might most enjoy learning why, after nearly 100 years of cultivation and experimentation, the romance of date culture is still going strong in the Coachella Valley.
Plan A Trip
Hotel Paseo is a boutique hotel with a design sense that is uniquely Palm Springs. Inside the hotel’s courtyard, a shiny retro camper is parked by the azure pool with shaded cabanas. The rooms and public area are decorated Mid-Century Modern, and the hotel is surrounded by a breathtaking mountain ranges. Located in downtown Palm Desert, you can walk to the Gardens on El Paseo, a high-end fashion center in the El Paseo Shopping District.
Cooking with Class is the Desert’s first and only recreational gourmet culinary school. Andie Hubka is an award-winning chef and owner of acclaimed restaurants La Quinta’s Cork & Fork, Heirloom Craft Kitchen, and Tu Mades Cantina & Grill. Her specialty is wine and food pairings, and multi course wine dinners. She can recommend how to use dates in cooking.
Tallgrass Hiking & Tours with local tour guide Nancy Cohee includes options for custom agriculture tours. She’s knowledgeable about the Greater Palm Springs area’s agrarian industry in the western portion of the Coachella Valley. She leads groups to see planting, cultivation and harvest of vegetables and fruit, including table grapes; grapefruit, lemons, oranges and limes; with a stop as Shields Date Gardens for a date shake or lunch.
Check out Great Palm Springs for more information on recreation, hotels, restaurants, tours and recreation.