Have you ever tried a date shake? Most people in L.A. would say no, and a few might say, “Dates were in my organic smoothie once.” The thick, sweet, caramelly-without-caramel concoction is a regional treat of the Coachella Valley. If you’ve ever traveled to Palm Springs, you might have noticed the yellow Hadley Fruit Orchards sign on the I-10 next to the Cabazon outlets and across from the wind turbines. And if you head 40 miles southeast to Indio, you’ll find a 40-foot knight ushering busloads of tourists into Shields Date Gardens, where guests can sip date shakes amongst glistening fountains and eerie biblical statues.
These two popular purveyors of date shakes have been peddling dates and date-centric snacks since the 1920s and '30s, respectively. Combined, they reportedly sell hundreds of thousands of date shakes per year. These businesses and other less touristy farms such as Pato’s Dream Date Gardens and Oasis Date Gardens, which has been in operation since 1912, are only a few of many date farms in the area.
But farms aren’t the only places to experience a date shake in the desert. Ice cream shops, health food stores and cafes in the greater Palm Springs area have adopted the signature treat, including Lappert’s Ice Cream, which serves a traditional shake using fresh dates and vanilla ice cream, and King’s Highway at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, which serves them affogato-style with espresso. Nature’s Health Food Cafe offers a vegan version created with crystallized dates, bananas and soy milk, and roadside shops like Westmoreland Date Shake whip up their own Medjool mixture.
Date shakes are the signature drink of the region because 95 percent of the country’s dates are said to be grown there. It’s affectionately (imperialistically?) called the “date capital of the world.” In the early 20th century, American agriculturists brought date shoots back from Middle Eastern countries like Algeria and Egypt, and found the desert’s soil and climate to be the most nurturing for date palms. More than 100 years later, it’s a multimillion-dollar industry.
After date farming turned out to be a fruitful enterprise, the harvest’s Middle Eastern origins were used as a marketing tool. Towns were given names like Mecca and Oasis and businesses took on Arabian themes. Coachella Valley High School's mascot became the Arabs and has since changed to the Mighty Arab. The Date Festival, which began in 1921, featured dome-topped buildings and ladies draped in silk, riding camels. Today’s date festival, which is now called the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, features an Arabian Nights Musical Pageant, which includes a meet-and-greet with Queen Scheherazade, the year’s winner of the Scheherazade Scholarship.
And what many don’t realize, mainly because most of us don’t spend time thinking about these types of dates, is that the wrinkly, brown sugar bombs don’t simply grow on trees. For mass cultivation, female date palm flowers must be manually pollinated with male date palm seeds. Date farmers, known as palmeros, traditionally climb ladders attached to 75-foot male trees to harvest the pollen-filled “sheath” (the male part), which can weigh about 10 pounds. To recap: Human beings climb up building-sized trees to chop off the trees' … “male-hood,” often larger than a newborn baby, and somehow climb back down. Because this is so dangerous, farms such as Shields elevate the palmeros with a forklift and leave the ladders on the trees for show.
Due to the robust sweetness of dates themselves, shakes can be caramelly or chocolatey without the actual presence of chocolate or caramel. Shields makes its shakes with house-made date crystals, while Hadley uses fresh. It’s a wonder that these finicky and homely fruits from across the globe so greatly influenced culture and industry in the deserts of Southern California. You can drink their whole story through a straw.