The Romance & Sex Life of the Date
Story #6: Hidden Kitchens Coachella Valley — The Romance and Sex Life of the Date
In 1898, the United States Department of Agriculture created a special department of men, called “Agriculture Explorers,” to travel the globe searching for new food crops to bring back to farmers in America. These men introduced exotic specimens like the mango, the avocado, new varieties of sweet juicy oranges, and dates.“These Agricultural Explorers were kind of like the Indiana Jones of the plant world,” says Sarah Seekatz, a California historian, who grew up in the Coachella Valley, the date capital of the United States.“One of their star explorers, Frank Meyer, who is responsible for introducing the Meyer lemon, disappeared off a boat in the Yangtze River,” says Seekatz. “ He lost his life searching for plants for the USDA.”The Agricultural Explorer program was started by David Fairchild, who was one of the first to travel to Bagdad to investigate dates.
“He chose Bagdad,” says Seekatz, “in part, because he remembered One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and Queen Scheherazade’s stories of Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The book was a well-known childhood tradition for generations of Americans. Fairchild was excited to see where Aladdin had lived, where Sinbad had been.”
In 1900, the USDA sent plant explorer, Walter Swingle, was sent to Algeria to study the date. As Swingle took temperature readings and soil temperature, he decided that the conditions were very much like those in California’s hot, arid Coachella Valley, sometimes referred to as the American Sahara. Deep aquifers existed under the valley providing perfect conditions for dates.
Unfortunately, planting date seeds does not yield commercially viable dates. Seeds vary and you never know what you’ll get. So Swingle brought back large offshoots cut from the bottom of the palms that would produce trees identical to the parent tree.
“It wasn’t easy,” says John Popenoe, a horticulturist whose grandfather, Fred Popenoe, had a nursery in Alta Dena, a few hours from the Coachella Valley. “These date offshoots are sixty pounds or so. They have to be cut off the mother palm with a big chisel.”
Swingle’s date palm offshoots thrived in the Coachella Valley and farmers began clamoring for more. In 1911, John Popenoe’s grandfather sent his sons Paul and Wilson, to the Middle East to collect date palms to sell at his nursery.
“In Basra, the port from which Sinbad the sailor always set sail on his hair-raising adventures, we entered the world’s greatest date growing country,” wrote Paul Popenoe.
The Popenoe brothers encountered some hair-raising adventures as well. Paul almost died of typhoid fever. Wilson suffered from malaria. As they traveled by camel to the Wadi Samali region of Oman, searching for the delicious Fard date, they were shot at by bands of locals.
“After Paul’s recovery from typhoid,” Wilson Popenoe wrote, “we bought several thousand young date palms along the banks of the Shatt-el-Arab River (in southern Iraq). We went up to Baghdad and bought several thousand palms in that region. After having been shot at once more we experienced relief when our 9000 palms were safely stowed on board a tramp steamer and headed down the Persian Gulf.”
In the Red Sea some of the offshoots were washed overboard in a storm. The ship was short of drinking water and Wilson had to trade his typewriter to the captain in to keep the date palms watered.
The Arabian palms finally landed at Galveston, Texas, and were shipped overland in 17 freight cars to California. It was the first commercial introduction of date palms to the Coachella Valley.
In order to market this new fruit and promote the region, date growers in the Coachella Valley began capitalizing on the exotic imagery and fantasy many Americans associated with the Middle East.
“The Arabian theme was a way to interest people in coming to what otherwise was a rather forbidding trackless desert,” says Pat Laflin, whose family owned Laflin Date Gardens since 1912. “It made it seem more exotic, more romantic. They needed something to dress up the dry sand.”
“There was a renaming of towns,” says Sarah Seekatz. “In 1904 Walters became the town of Mecca. There was Oasis, Arabia, and Thermal. Investors from Los Angeles would take the train out to the Coachella Valley where they’d be greeted by guides dressed in Arabian costumes and taken on camel back out to a proposed development called The Walled Oasis of Biskra.”
“Muslims would stop in our date shop in great anticipation of seeing Mecca,” says Pat Laflin. “They’d come back and say ‘well, it’s not really what we were expecting.’”
“Hollywood films spurred a craze for all things middle eastern,” says Sarah Seekatz. Films like The Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, and the blockbuster 1921 silent movie, The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino inspired women’s fashion, architecture, jewelry, packaging and ad campaigns.
In 1922, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen fueled peoples’ interest and imaginations. Along with the mummies and priceless treasures found in the tomb, one item in particular caught the attention of people in the Coachella Valley — preserved dates.
“One man from the area,” says Seekatz, “actually wrote to try and obtain dates from King Tut’s tomb to put on display in his date shop.”
During the 1950s date shops dotted the highway, attracting tourists. There was Pyramid Date shop where you could purchase your dates in a pyramid. Sniff’s Exotic Date Garden set up a tent like those used by nomadic tribes of the Sahara.
“We started just selling out of the kitchen door in the middle of the ranch,” says Pat Laflin who came with her husband to the valley in 1950. “My father-in-law was so proud of what he was growing. He would make a date shake in the kitchen for anybody who asked for it.”
One of the most well known date shops that still exists today is Shields Date Garden, established in 1924. Floyd Shields lured in customers with his lecture and slide show titled, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”
“For miles along the highway, says Seekatz, there were large yellow billboards urging people to see “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”
MALES AND FEMALES
Francisco Paniagua, a palmero (palm worker) climbs up into the fronds of a 50 foot female date palm growing in Patos Dream Date Garden, Thermal, CA. He works his way around the spiky branches of the crown spraying little puffs of yellow pollen gathered from the flowers of a male palm tree onto each flower of the female tree. The practice of hand pollinating date palms goes back thousands of years.
“There are pictures in the pyramids of priests doing a ceremony around the female palms, waving the male flowers to increase the pollination,” says Doug Adair, owner of Patos Dream Date Garden in Thermal, California.
The Halawi, the Khalal, the Deglet Noor, are some of the date varieties that grow on Adair’s small organic farm.
“This is a Barhi date,” says Doug. “It comes from southern Iraq around Basra. The tradition in that area goes back thousands of years to when Alexander the Great passed through in 322 BC. This is what he would have been eating, Barhi Dates, the fruits of his victory when he conquered the Persian Empire.”
The International Festival of the Dates
In the late 1940s the International Festival of the Dates became an annual event in Indio. The business and civic leaders encouraged townspeople to dress up for the duration.
“If you went to a movie in Indio your ticket might be taken by someone in harem pants,” says Sarah Seekatz. “At a restaurant your waitress might be wearing one of those little boleros. Or the produce guy at the grocery story would be dressed as a genie.”
“The first Date Festival I went to was in 1950,” says Pat Laflin who had just moved to the Valley with her husband to work in the date business. “The pageant uses the Arabian Nights theme. They chose queen Queen Scheherazade and the princesses. And they always had a genie, elephants and camels. Lots of chiffon, sequins, and the costumes showed quite a bit of flesh.”
An outdoor stage was constructed with domes and minarets designed by a Hollywood set designer. “It was supposed to look like Bagdad,” says Laflin, “ or something people imagined Bagdad looked like.”
The camel races were a huge draw. And there were elaborate exhibits of all varieties of dates in the Taj Mahal building.
The Coachella Valley High School sports teams have been known as the Arabs since the 1930s. A belly dancer performs at halftime at football games and an Arab mascot runs around the field with a saber.
“You may know about the controversy at Coachella High School who has had the Arab as their mascot since clear back,” says Pat Laflin. “The picture is of an Arab that looks rather fierce. Which is what you want your football team to be. But in today’s world there’s an Arab group that felt it was offensive. So the high school is in the process of reevaluating.”
Since the 1970s the demographics of the Coachella Valley has been changing.
“A lot of these mom and pop date growers sold their date groves to large scale industrial agricultural producers,” says Seekatz. “Newcomers were not attached to the story of the date gardens and the regions long connection with the Middle East. The area began to market itself as a place where industry could grow.”
During the 1970s and 80s, the American perception of the Middle East was changing as well. Politics and the media brought the region into sharp reality. The fantasy images of harem dancers and genies gave way to TV coverage of the oil embargo and the Iranian hostage crisis.
“People were concerned that it would hurt to be associated with the Middle East,” says Seekatz. “But a lot of people were still invested in the agricultural heritage of the date and its Middle Eastern origins.”
Returning to the Oasis of Boudenib
Gardens of date palms stretch mile after mile through the Coachella Valley. More than 90% of the dates harvested in the U.S. are grown here. One of the most popular varieties is the Medjool date.
“All the Medjools dates can be traced back to a single oasis in Morocco,” says Doug Adair. Nine offshoots taken from the Oasis of Boudenib, Morrocco, are the source of all the present trees.
In Morroco and Algeria where the Medjool originated, the palm has been wiped out by disease. Pat Laflin and her Ben have sent back healthy stock from their date garden to the areas where the Medjool once flourished.
The Laflins visited Boudenib in the 1995. It’s over the Atlas Mountains from Marrakesh and far out into the desert.
“When we got to Boudenib the mayor came out to greet us, it was a big occasion,” remembers Pat. “He said, ‘Why would anyone from the United States want to come to Bou Denib?’ We had worked with the Medjool dates for so many years and to see where they originated was very meaningful to us.”
Special thanks to the Coachella Valley History Museum
Date Recipes Recipes
3/4 C brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup dates
1 cup sour cream
Beat 2 eggs and gradually add brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Fold in dates (diced, or cooked into jam) and sour cream. Pour in 9” pastry shell.
Bake in hot oven (450) for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350 for 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center of the pie comes out clean. Decorate with whipped cream and half dates.
Date Nut Bread
1 cup dates, such as deglet noor or medjool
1 cup milk
2 cups quality vanilla ice cream
1. Pit and chop dates.
2. Put dates and milk into jar of a blender and purée until smooth. Add ice cream and purée again. Divide shake between 2 tall cups or glasses.
1/2 cup date pieces or flakes
3 cups sifted flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup chopped nuts
3 tsp. Baking powder
1/4 tsp Soda
Pour boiling water on raisins and let stand 10 minutes.
Drain, mix date pieces or crystals with raisins and nuts.
Sift flour, baking powder, salt and soda. Add brown sugar, fruit mixture and mix well.
Stir in egg that has been beaten into milk.
Pour into greased loaf pan and let stand 15 min.
Bake in moderate oven 350 deg. About one hour and 15 min. Or until done
For more date recipes, visit Shields Date Garden’s recipe page.
Humanists & Scholars
PhD Candidate, History
University of California, Riverside
|Sarah on Agricultural Explorers and the Meyer Lemon’s Namesake
For additional academic references, please see the following publication:
Pat Laflin, “In the Beginning the Story of Dates Part I and II,” Periscope (Indio: Coachella Valley Historical Society)
Sarah Seekatz: “Harem Girls and Camel Races: Middle Eastern Fantasies in the Deserts of Southern California” A photographic essay on KCET’s Artbound.
Songs from the Romance of the Date
The Romance and Sex Life of the Date was co-produced by Lisa Morehouse. Morehouse is an award-winning independent public radio and print journalist, who’s filed for KQED’s The California Report, NPR’s Latino USA and All Things Considered, Edutopia magazine and McSweeney’s. Her reporting has taken her from Samoan traveling circuses to Mississippi Delta classrooms to the homes of Lao refugees in rural Iowa. She recently finished an audio documentary project, After the Gold Rush: The Future of Small Town California and is beginning reporting on a new series, California Foodways. Morehouse also works with youth from San Francisco and Oakland to produce radio diaries and features which air on KALW public radio.
Morehouse’s first career was in public education. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, she taught middle school in rural Georgia, built an educational non-profit in Arizona, and spent a decade teaching high school in San Francisco. Her students’ oral histories on immigration and migration were published in 2005’s I Might Get Somewhere.
To hear more of Lisa’s reporting on the Coachella Valley, visit her site After the Gold Rush Radio.
USDA Agricultural Explorers
The Influence of the Middle East on Popular Culture
1001 Arabian Nights
For more information on the Date Industry in the Coachella Valley, please visit the following links.
|Shields Date Garden||Coachella Valley History Museum|