The Cult of the California Date Shake
How the Middle Eastern date palm became the go-to treat of the high desert
Of the many roadside attractions I’ve been to known to pull over for, nothing compares to “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” The signs for this scandalous film first show up miles away, on Highway 111 in the bleached-out High Desert of Southern California, outside of Palm Springs. They beckon tourists to slow down even before the giant wooden knight appears, pointing visitors to the Shields Date Garden parking lot in Indio.
The gimmick works: Shields is one of the best-known roadside attractions in the region. And as much as the film gets tourists in the door, what keeps them coming back is the dates. Shields sells five varieties, including medium-soft and sweet Blonde and Brunettes, developed and patented by Floyd Shields and sold exclusively in Indio.
Samples are abundant and you can buy all kinds of dates, along with the usual touristy chazerai, but in this writer’s opinion, the best souvenir from Shields is one that shouldn’t leave the parking lot: a date shake.
Date shakes have become something of an unofficial drink of the Coachella Valley, appearing on menus at hotels, restaurants, and other date shops along the road. At Shields, the thick, creamy milkshakes are made using date crystals, another one of Shields’ patented inventions, which are essentially nubbins of dried dates sweetened with date sugar. For the shakes, the crystals are mixed with water to make a thick date paste, which is blended with vanilla ice cream and milk.
They’re a fleeting keepsake, especially in the unrelenting desert sun. But there’s something delightful about the act of slurping a cold, sweet drink in the middle of the barren California landscape.
Shields was founded in 1924 by newlyweds Floyd and Bess Shields, who moved east from Los Angeles to try their hand at the booming date industry in the Coachella Valley. That boom was the result of the USDA’s specially-commissioned Agriculture Explorers, aka “the Indiana Joneses of the plant world,” who brought dates from their native Middle Eastern and North African climes to the similarly hot and dry California desert. These flora explorers coincided with a wave of public interest in the Middle East, mysterious and exotic-seeming at the time, which date growers in the Coachella Valley happily played up to market their fruit.
Tourism in the area took off, as people drove out to the desert for the three-day, Arabian Nights-themed “International Festival of Dates,” complete with camel races. Floyd and Bess needed something to make their date farm stand out from the dozens of others lining the highway. So Floyd, who had trained as an engineer but proved naturally adept at date farming, began giving lectures in his back garden to describe the painstaking process of date cultivation. He eventually collected his notes into a slideshow and called it, rather salaciously, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”
Today, the 15-minute doc plays on a continuous loop in the in-house “Romance Theater,” though a few years ago it was turned into a short film that combines the original slideshow with Shields’ narration and new footage and audio. The film is currently available on DVD and you can find it on YouTube.
In it, Shields unpacks the nuts and bolts of date farming, a labor- and time-intensive process that involves shimmying up the trunk of 70-foot trees to hand-pollinate the female palms, flooding the root systems (though they are desert plants, date palms need the equivalent of 120 inches of rainfall to thrive), and hand-picking each individual date bunch after a decade of waiting for a given tree to bear fruit.
This is an abbreviated version of the process, which involves no fewer than ten other mind-bogglingly intensive steps. When I watch it, I think of how strange it is for something as resource-intensive as date palms to thrive in the High Desert, which even today is fairly underdeveloped, boasting more than its fair share of forbidding-feeling nothingness beyond the handful of towns that thrive along the highway.
For many, the desert holds a mysterious allure. For me, it’s a reminder of the awesome power of nature to still overrule the will of man. But how delightful it is that our tiny toehold into taming the wild landscape should come in the form of date farms, and how sweet it is to take a bit of them with you in a Styrofoam cup.