This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Your Mystery Date, first released on December 21, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MARK TADROS: When the fruit’s actually ready, you can shake the bunch, which you’ll see here.
TADROS: We can put the tray underneath it… untwist the twist tie, and the fruit that’s ready…
TADROS… will drop into the tray. You want to try it?
SONJA SWANSON: Yeah!
TADROS: So grab your hand on that and just shake it as hard as you can.
[FRUIT DROPPING INTO TRAY]
TADROS: Nicely done, you start tomorrow.
SWANSON: Thank you! [CHUCKLES] I’ll have to tell the Gastropod hosts that I’m quitting my, quitting my job.
CYNTHIA GRABER: That is Sonja Swanson, our superstar producer, and she is in fact leaving us, but not to harvest fruit.
NICOLA TWILLEY: That Sonja, she can do anything. Side note: if you too are amazing and would like to work with us, please check out gastropod.com/jobs and apply by January 3rd.
GRABER: But, back to the show, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode is all about dates. Not the online kind or the blind kind or even the awkward first kind. The fruit kind!
GRABER: Sonja actually talked us into doing this episode. I have to admit at first I was a little skeptical. Dates are delicious, sure, but how interesting could they be? They’re just dried fruit!
TWILLEY: Never doubt a date, Cynthia. Turns out, they’re full of mystery, adventure, and hoochie coochie dances.
GRABER: Dates also figure into all sorts of religious celebrations—why would you break a Ramadan fast with a date and celebrate Christmas with a date?
TWILLEY: And why always the same date? It’s always a Medjool, which makes me wonder: are we missing out on lots of exciting other dates? Should we be playing the field is what I’m basically asking.
GRABER: All that, plus the story of 1,001 nights in the California desert.
TWILLEY: This episode is supported by the Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.
TIM BUNTEL: I usually think of dates as like a… prune-like consistency. These are much more… soft and—
BUNTEL: Fudgy, candy-like, yes.
GRABER: As regular listeners will know, Gastropod is a family affair, and so I roped in my partner Tim to taste some of the more unusual dates that Nicky and I got for this episode.
BUNTEL: But it still tastes like dates. Like it tastes like Christmas morning, date-nut bread that Mum used to make. You had to call it bread so you could eat it in the morning, but it was really cake.
GRABER: And did it taste good, did you like it?
BUNTEL: Yeah it was pretty good. Put enough cream cheese on it, it tasted fine.
GRABER: Did she only make that on Christmas?
BUNTEL: Only on Christmas.
GRABER: This kind of shocked me. Nicky, you had said that dates were a Christmas food, but I thought maybe it was just a British thing. What do I know, I’m Jewish.
TWILLEY: Sometimes I am actually correct about some things, believe it or not folks. But yes, growing up we always had a box of dates on the sideboard at Christmas time. And we were not alone.
SARAH SEEKATZ: And a lot of this is done through mail order. This is a really successful mail order food business very early on. And dates were a really popular Christmas item to send to people. I remember as a child sending dates to relatives across the United States at Christmas time.
GRABER: That’s Sarah Seekatz—
SEEKATZ: I always tell people that it’s see-kates, rhymes with dates.
GRABER: She’s a professor of history at San Joaquin Delta College in California, and she wrote her thesis about the history of California’s date industry.
TWILLEY: I’d just like to spend a moment more noting that I was right about Christmas and dates, but apparently that’s not the only occasion Christians bust out the dates. Tadros Tadros spent his working life farming dates in California, but he came from Egypt, where dates were de rigueur for a Coptic Christian holiday earlier in the year.
TADROS TADROS: Yes, the red dates especially is a symbol of—they call it Nowruz celebration, and that’s for the martyrs, the Christians that died. And then because if it is red it simplify the blood of these martyrs.
GRABER: And then for Muslims around the world, it’s traditional to break the fast each night of the month of Ramadan with a date. We asked a reporter in Jerusalem to record a local family last spring during Ramadan—they gathered together for their Iftar feast, and of course enjoyed some dates.
YOUSEF: [SPEAKING ARABIC] In the name of God, the presence of dates on the Ramadan table is a prophetic sunnah. The prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to break his fast with a date.
TWILLEY: This is a man called Yousef explaining that dates are the essential prequel to the meal after the day’s fast—they were the first thing Mohammed would eat once the sun went down, and so it’s become part of the ritual.
NAWAL NASRALLAH: I mean, it’s, it’s a must. Dates are a must in the month of Ramadan.
GRABER: Nawal Nasrallah is originally from Iraq, and she wrote a book called Dates: A Global History. She told us the prophet loved dates, and he actually suggested that eating seven dates a day would drive away evil, and that a house without dates is a poor house indeed.
TWILLEY: According to Nawal the date tree is actually at the center of the drama in the Muslim telling of the Garden of Eden story. She told us about an ancient stone carving that shows the date tree as the tree of life.
NASRALLAH: The impression of the seal shows a man and a woman sitting, face to face, and between them, there is the date palm, and on the side there is the snake. And there you have it, you know, this story of Adam and Eve and the tree of life and the snake.
GRABER: According to Muslim tradition, after God created Adam, he or she asked Adam to clip his hair and fingernails and bury them. And then a date palm tree sprung up from where the clippings were buried, full of fruit for Adam to enjoy. so he fell to the ground to worship God, and then Satan got jealous and wept tears of fury, and those tears created the thorns that now sprout from the date palm’s trunk.
TWILLEY: Dates go back further than the invention of the religions that have a single god, though. A date palm was the symbol of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the goddess of fertility and lots of other important things.
NASRALLAH: There are all kinds of myths and stories. In ancient Greek and Rome, they say that Apollo and his sister Artemis were born under a date palm.
GRABER: So why? Why is one tree, one fruit, at the center of so many religions?
NASRALLAH: There is nothing you can’t do with this tree. The fruits, you eat them. You make wine with it. You make vinegar. They, they used to roof their houses with the fronds, with the trunks for bridges, for canals. It was a very useful tree. And that’s how it became a valuable symbol, and, you know, a subject of legends in the past.
TWILLEY: Also, you have to think about where the date is from—basically, the desert.
MICHAEL PURUGGANAN: In the Arabian Peninsula, it’s pretty much the only, you know, agricultural crop you can grow. And so for that region, and into North Africa, the arid regions of the world, it is a very important crop.
GRABER: Michael Purugganan is professor of biology at New York University and an expert in date genetics. And he and Nawal both pointed out that date trees grow particularly well in oases in the desert.
NASRALLAH: The date palm is a tree that needs a dry weather. While, while the the dates are ripening. And it needs plenty of water. The, the Arabs used to say that the, the, they described the date palm, its roots in water and its head is up next to the sun. And it was irrigated either by flooding, or by running water in canals.
TWILLEY: But not rain—never rain. Rain damages the flowers and the growing dates. It’s a very particular set of requirements that meant that dates flourished in a very specific environment: these desert oases.
GRABER: And so imagine: you’re riding your camel in the Sahara, you’re hot, thirsty, you’re hungry, and then an oasis appears ahead. Water! Amazing! And then as you get closer, you realize there are DATES there, and they’re not just delicious and full of calories you need from all that sugar, they’re actually also really nutritious.
TWILLEY: Nawal told us they’re called the bread of the desert. In this region, dates are a staple carb, the way wheat or potatoes or rice are elsewhere. They’re long lasting, they’re portable, and they’re also surprisingly rich in vitamins and minerals—dates were the reason that early Arab sailors could make long sea voyages to trade, while their European counterparts were all suffering from scurvy.
GRABER: And so it makes sense that people in the region not only cherished them but also started to grow them deliberately. So how long have people been cultivating dates?
PURUGGANAN: The earliest archaeological evidence of date utilization is in the Gulf area, probably around 6 to 7000 years ago, but it’s not sure whether they were just collecting wild dates, or whether they were beginning to cultivate it. But definitely, by about 4 to 5000 years ago, there are already records of date plantations in Mesopotamia and in that area.
TWILLEY: Turns out that although dates are beloved and essential and ancient, they’re also rather mysterious. Michael told us that when he started researching dates, more than a decade ago, there was no central international date seed vault, for example. And it was hard to get a hold of a lot of different date varieties because a lot of their homeland was a conflict zone for one reason or another.
GRABER: And as Michael started looking into dates, he realized that even the most basic question about the fruit is still unanswered.
PURUGGANAN: Well, the big debate is we actually don’t know anything about where it originated from. Nor do we actually know what its ancestor is. So the date palms are in the genus Phoenix. And the closest relative to date palms, called veda date palms, is Phoenix sylvestris, which grows in India. And so there have been theories that they originated, maybe somewhere in the Iran-Iraq area, the Gulf area, Oman. There are also theories that, no, they didn’t originate there, they originated maybe North Africa,
TWILLEY: Michael’s speciality is in plant genetics, so he decided to try to crack this cold case using DNA. He and his lab set out to sample 100 different date varieties, although they’re now up to several hundred.
GRABER: Michael’s studied the genetics of all these varieties, and he and his colleagues have been able to tease out a few things. For one, dates when they’re ripening on the tree come in shades of two colors, red and yellow—
PURUGGANAN: And we figured out the gene that’s responsible for that, based on our analysis. And it’s the same gene that’s mutated in oil, palm.
TWILLEY: It’s like Kevin Bacon is scripting this, folks. Our two back to back palm episodes turn out to actually be related!
PURUGGANAN: Well, not closely related. They’re 30 million years apart. It’s the same gene that gives, you know, dark colored and light colored oil palm seeds. And it’s actually the same gene that gives you red grapes and yellow grapes, and, you know, in apples. So it seems that this gene has been mutated multiple times in evolution to give you fruit color differences, especially red, yellow, red, green color differences. And we’ve just found that in dates as well.
GRABER: Michael and other scientists on the project are trying to understand the genetics related to flavor, and to fruit size and diversity, and to which ones are better suited to North Africa. These are all sorts of things that could be helpful to date farmers. They’re doing all of this by looking at patterns in the date DNA and comparing one variety to another.
PURUGGANAN: And then we use, essentially, evolutionary genetic analysis to try to piece together the relationships between these different varieties in these different populations. And sometimes we can even time when different populations diverge from each other. And in so doing, we can piece together a picture of how these different populations are related to each other. But even more importantly possibly provide ideas of how they may have spread from where we think they originated from, which is the Gulf area.
TWILLEY: That’s their current hypothesis. But even with all the DNA he’s gathered, Michael’s big question—*the* big question about dates—where their wild ancestor came from, and where humans began to cultivate them? That is still a mystery. He has pieced together some clues.
GRABER: A colleague of his looked into the genetics of what seem like wild dates in Oman. And they were in fact genetically different from our common dates.
PURUGGANAN: They were still very closely related to cultivated dates, but they were genetically distinct. So that’s the closest we’ve managed to find what could possibly—we don’t think it’s the ancestor, but maybe a very close, wild group of dates.
TWILLEY: Frankly, Michael told us he’s found that a lot of what seem like they could be wild date palms are actually just escapees from human cultivation.
PURUGGANAN: They’re the descendants of previously cultivated dates, that just kind of reverted back to their feral state. Nobody has seen the, what I almost call the mythical wild ancestral date palm. And, in fact, there are even suggestions that they don’t exist anymore. That essentially the domesticated date is all we’ve got left, that it replaced all of these wild ancestral dates so. We’re still looking. But we haven’t we haven’t found them yet. One area that would be interesting to look at is Iran, which, unfortunately, we don’t have access to.
TWILLEY: Finding these wild ancestors is not just historically interesting—it’s really important, actually for all crops, because the wild relatives often contain a whole lot of genetic diversity that has typically been bred out of cultivated crops, but could be really useful. And so the search continues!
GRABER: But clearly, dates were once wild, somewhere, and then people did start to domesticate them, somewhere. And those cultivated dates spread throughout the region.
TWILLEY: Because people loved them for all the reasons we just said. And as those early date farmers tended to their orchards and learned how to irrigate the trees to keep their feet wet, Nawal told us that they also noticed that some of the trees didn’t bear fruit. The male trees. They were freeloaders.
NASRALLAH: By practice, they realized that one male date palm is enough for pollinating 50 females. So they allocated one male for 50 females. That was like a smart thing to do. I mean, why waste you know, effort and, and space for trees that do not produce dates? In a way, I say the, the female trees, they became like like the harem of the male tree,
GRABER: And then the other thing people did throughout the Middle East was develop all sorts of different varieties with a whole range of textures and flavors—and we’re going to taste a handful of them, coming up after this break.
TWILLEY: Finally, the part of the show where we get to play the field. How many different dates are out there?
PURUGGANAN: We don’t know, right, because we do not know how many varieties there are. Especially how many local varieties that are grown in only a particular oasis or region are available. There are estimates as low as 250 varieties in the world. There’s estimates as high as 3000 varieties.
GRABER: Yet another date mystery for Michael to help solve.
TWILLEY: Today, the biggest date variety in the world, at least in terms of production tonnage, is called the Deglet Noor. Deglet means date, and Noor means light.
GRABER: Nawal told us that Deglet Noors were discovered in the 1600s in an oasis in the Sahara in North Africa.
NASRALLAH: They are kind of all purpose dates, the dates that you use for, you know, for making cookies. They are not really impressive, they’re, you know, like basic dates.
GRABER: We tasted them, and we agreed, they were kind of boring. The texture is a little dry, they’re not particularly sweet, they’re not necessarily something I’d want to eat plain by the handful. These are the dates that on an industrial scale get chopped up and used for bars and baked goods.
TWILLEY: If you buy dates as dates, just to eat, what you’re usually going to get is a Medjool.
NASRALLAH: Which is, of course, the queen of the dates. They are large, they are sweet. But I find you know, their shape is very impressive, but the taste is kind rather, you know, it has no depth. As compared with Barhi. Barhi is different. They are of course, smaller than Medjool, but their taste is, it has a depth of its own. It’s chewy in texture. And it’s like eating candy. It’s, you know, you have, there is the flavor of caramel in it.
TWILLEY: Medjools are indeed massive. They’re like the Hummer of dates, which is one reason they’re popular.
GRABER: And they’re a lot sweeter than Deglet Noor, definitely another reason to snack on them.
TWILLEY: But we are both 100 percent in agreement with Nawal, Medjools are nothing compared to the Barhi. The date farm that Sonja visited, the one run by Tadros and his son Mark—they specialize in Barhi.
MARK TADROS: You feel how soft it is? Right? So when you bite into that, I mean it is almost just going to melt in your mouth. And the people that know, know, right? They know what the best date is if they’ve had this.
GRABER: Barhis do just melt in your mouth. They’re super mushy and fudgy and ridiculously delicious.
TADROS: It’s ugly. I mean, it’s a really, really ugly date. But, you know, sometimes things that are ugly tastes delicious. I mean, what can you do?
TWILLEY: Life lesson here people, don’t judge your date on looks alone.
GRABER: Barhi dates are originally from Iraq.
NASRALLAH: They are from Basra. They were called Barhi because, from the humid wind that blows from the Gulf to the region called bare so they call them Barhi.
GRABER: These three varieties—Deglet Noor, Medjool, and Barhi—these are the biggest in the US. But Nawal told us that you can find dozens of different kinds in the markets in North Africa and the Middle East.
NASRALLAH: All those varieties they are given names by the by the farmers. Of the names I know, for example, they used to call certain dates, that is in Iraq, they used to call certain dates like the nightingale eggs. And there were other dates that were called the old lady’s candy, because they were so sweet and they—because they think that that toothless old lady would be happy with those dates. There were some large ones that they call them, the mules’ testicles. I have read that the most expensive date in Egypt in the year 2009 was called Obama. So, you know, it depends on their shapes, on their colors, on certain occasions.
TWILLEY: Tadros has vivid memories from when he was a kid of all the different varieties of dates on sale in the market in Egypt.
TADROS TADROS: It’s on carts, or in a fruit stands. And then you just walk because it’s a huge market. Everybody has different variety and pile. Then they use a newspaper make it like a cone. [SPEAKS ARABIC] —And that, “bilah,” is the translation for dates. “Rotab! Rotab!”— “this one is soft.” Then “bilah rotab!”—then everybody just comes to see what he has in that day, what variety he has.
GRABER: We didn’t get to shop in a market in the Middle East, but we did get hold of seven unusual varieties.
GRABER: Okay, so we have Abada. We have Zahidi, Deglet…
GRABER: Kardrawi, brunette, blond, black beauty.
TWILLEY: I feel like brunette and blond are kind of perfect for the date theme. Like, which would sir prefer?
TWILLEY: Blonde and brunette are actually varieties that were selected in California, in the 1920s. And we liked blonde fine, it had a nice fudgy texture and a caramel taste.
GRABER: I like that.
TWILLEY: I’m happy with that.
GRABER: Blonde is great.
TWILLEY: Let’s see how brunette stacks up! I’m rooting for brunette, to be honest. [LAUGH]
GRABER: Obviously me too here! I always root for the brunettes. Sorry, blondes.
TWILLEY: They got everything else, they don’t need our support.
GRABER Mmm the flavor is great! I like the texture on the blondes better, but.
TWILLEY: There’s more of a little… molasses-y note.
GRABER: That’s a win for the brunettes, I think. Then the Abada surprised us, it tasted a little like cherries and raspberries, it was totally different from the other dates.
TWILLEY: Zahidi dates are Iraqi originally, like Barhis, and they were also very soft and squidgy and delicious. The Khadrawi date was like eating a caramel. Literally. Just sweet chewy melty caramel in fruit form.
GRABER: And then we moved on to the deepest darkest date of the bunch, it’s called Black Beauty and it’s a date that’s originally from Saudi Arabia.
GRABER: Wow. It has a denser texture—
TWILLEY: Oh wow, but also the taste!
GRABER: Ooh. Mm-hmmm. Almost has like, some coffee notes to it.
TWILLEY: Yeah I feel like this is a, it tastes already like a cake on its own.
GRABER: Totally. Wow, that is good.
TWILLEY: That’s my favorite so far.
GRABER: Mm-hmm. Mmm!
TWILLEY: The really surprising thing to me is how different these dates were. I had kind of thought a date was a date, but actually they’re more like apples. Some are really good and some are… red delicious!
PURUGGANAN: Even in my lab, the people that work on dates, each of us have our own favorite varieties. My favorite variety, for example, which is very hard to find in the West, is called Sukkary. It has a very sweet, caramel-like consistency and taste.
GRABER: But the sad thing is, these are not the ones that you’ll find in the supermarket. Like we said, those are mostly Medjools. Medjool can be tasty, sure, you can find some really good ones, but these unusual ones, you have to special-order them. We got ours direct from farms in California.
TWILLEY: And California is where almost all the dates that are eaten in America are grown. Just a few hours drive from where I live in Los Angeles is a date palm mecca. Literally.
GRABER: But so how did dates cross the ocean and set up shop in California? And why do they hold camel races in the southern California desert? Coming up, after this break.
SEEKATZ: So people in the United States have been eating dates for a really long time. There’s a record of Thomas Jefferson, even, handing out dates to his grandchildren. And there’s some evidence that there were dates in and around the California missions, although they might have been planted so that we could get date palm fronds for religious ceremonies.
GRABER: But Sarah told us the first real attempt to bring commercial date farming to California is connected to food explorers who set out to travel the world in the late 1800s and send home all sorts of promising new crops to the US government. We actually already did an episode about them, and you should definitely go listen to it.
TWILLEY: In that episode, we focused on a food explorer called David Fairchild, and he comes up in the date story, along with a colleague called Walter Swingle. David Fairchild voyaged all round the world for the USDA, and he sent home mangoes, cashews, broccoli, avocado and more. From places as far afield as Indonesia and mainland China. But he had his heart set on going to Baghdad.
SEEKATZ: I think that Fairchild chooses Baghdad for a reason that’s so important to the history of dates. It’s that idea of American Orientalism. This idea that, you know, people in the United States had not been traveling to the greater Middle East, but they had been traveling in their imagination. And the two ways that they’ve been traveling to the greater Middle East in their imagination are one through the Bible and religious stories, obviously set in the greater Middle East.
GRABER: The Bible wasn’t particularly anything new. But there were a lot of other things going on in the 1800s. For one, there was a rush of interest in biblical archaeology. Europeans were exploring and digging at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and at Jericho. It really set people’s imaginations aflame.
TWILLEY: But for two, this was also all tied in with Egyptomania—the Victorians were obsessed with all things Egyptian, researchers deciphered hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.
GRABER: But wait, that’s not all. The book 1,001 Arabian Nights, you know the one, with Sheherezade telling stories every night, it was translated by a British scholar in the 1800s and it was also a massive hit.
NARRATOR: When Scheherazade was done with her story, the sultan said, “And to this sultan, too, my queen, new things are revealed. A thousand and one nights have passed, and I have heard from you a thousand and one tales.”
SEEKATZ: And Fairchild talks about how when he was a child, he had heard these stories of 1001 Arabian Nights. And the Baghdad of his imagination was so romantic and rich that he wanted to experience it. And he’s one of the very first, one of the very few Americans who by 1900 had actually made it to Baghdad.
TWILLEY: So in the early 1900s, David Fairchild and Walter Swingle and a couple of other folks were scouring the Middle East, seeking out the best dates. And dates are like apples in another key way: they don’t grow true from seed. So if you find a date you like, you need to chop off a little offshoot from the base. And that will grow into a tree that’s basically a clone of its mother.
GRABER: David and Walter managed to convince locals to part with a few of these little mini date tree offshoots, which was not super easy. And they managed to bring them across the oceans, which also wasn’t super easy. But they did, at the end, succeed in bringing some baby date trees to America.
SEEKATZ: So when these dates get to the United States, there’s some question about where is the best place to grow them. And some of the top contenders, basically Arizona and the deserts of Southern California. And what makes the Coachella Valley so spectacular for dates, is that dates, the old adage says, need their head in the fire and their feet in the water. They require a lot of water, and high heat. So as someone who grew up in the Coachella Valley, I can tell you it is very hot there in the summer. And the dates really like that. But they also need a lot of water. And so the Coachella Valley had pretty high aquifers underneath.
TWILLEY: This is actually due to the legendary San Andreas fault that is probably maybe going to reduce LA to rubble one of these fine days! The San Andreas runs right through the middle of the Coachella Valley and it seems to form an impermeable barrier underground, which causes groundwater to pool above it, nearer the surface.
GRABER: And then, also remember that dates hate rain during the growing season, and America’s other would-be date region—Arizona—can have monsoon-style downpours, whereas the Coachella Valley is basically as dry as a bone.
SEEKATZ: This is really exciting to the people who create, kind of, this date culture and date agriculture. Because they’ve already sort of been trying to make the claim that the landscape of the Coachella Valley is America’s Arabia. That it looks identical, that the weather is the same to the greater Middle East. So that you could essentially travel the world without leaving the state.
TWILLEY: This remaking of the very southeastern corner of California into a fake Middle East—it’s a big project and it didn’t happen overnight. For one thing the date trees had to go into quarantine first, so they didn’t bring in disease.
GRABER: In 1927, Walter Swingle collected 11 offshoots of a particularly delicious date from Morocco called the Medjool, they seemed to be disease free.
TWILLEY: But at the time, the date industry in Morocco was being destroyed by a fungus. Over a few years, it wiped out more than 15 million date trees in north Africa.
SEEKATZ: And so in order to kind of prevent that, what we see is that the date palms that are brought in are quarantined. And they’re quarantined on Native American land. And the caretakers are Native American.
GRABER: Eleven of these Medjool trees were planted in Nevada, but disastrously, a dog dug up two of them, so then there were only nine. Those were transported to a USDA station in Indio, California, and then the offshoots of those trees were distributed around California, and even back to the Middle East. Sarah says these Native American caretakers might have saved the medjool date for the whole world.
TWILLEY: Although who knows. Medjool literally translates to unknown, so more than one date variety in the Middle East was called that. This is actually another one of the mysteries Michael is planning to use DNA to solve.
PURUGGANAN: It will be interesting to see if, indeed, all of the Medjools of the world are the same. and can be traced to the Medjools that are now in the USDA collection in California.
GRABER: But in any case, the date trees that were planted in Indio matured, and then California’s date industry started to take shape.
SEEKATZ: Now, as the Coachella Valley’s date industry grows, they see themselves benefiting from that association with the Orient. And so they’re going to start to say, yes, eat these dates. They’re so romantic, and they’re tied to the magic and luxury of the so-called Orient.
GRABER: Yes, this is drawing on very problematic stereotypes of the Middle East. But that’s where the publication imagination was back then.
SEEKATZ: So if you look back to popular culture at the time, we see films, and books, radio stories, and a lot of consumer culture focus on the greater Middle East as a place of luxury. As a place of very beautiful women. As a place of ancient wisdom. And that actually makes its way into the date marketing. So there’s an ad that says: “Taste a date, like the dates have been on Cleopatra’s lips.” Or, “this wise old man says his daughter is very beautiful, because all she does is eat dates.”
TWILLEY: The burgeoning California date industry was very intentional about making the most of all this Egyptomania and the excitement about all things quote unquote Oriental. In fact, they were determined to capitalize on every single opportunity to boost this Arabic connection. The big excitement in the 1920s was the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which was front page news everywhere.
MAN 2: [SINGING] Why, they opened up his tomb the other day, and jumped with glee.
MAN 1: [SINGING] They learned a lot of ancient history.
TOGETHER: [SINGING] In old King Tut-Tut-Tut-enkhamen’s day / Beneath the tropic skies, King Tut-Tut-Tut was very wise…
SEEKATZ: There were dates found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. And when the Coachella Valley growers find this out, one of the major growers and boosters for the area actually writes to see if you could just like have some of these antiquity treasures, these dates that were preserved in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. and he wanted to put them in his date shop. So that when visitors came by, they could see this relic of King Tutankhamun.
GRABER: That didn’t work out for him, but if Americans at the time wanted a taste of King Tut’s world, they could go to versions of the Middle East at the World’s Fair. Millions of Americans visited world’s fairs all over the US, and you could visit reconstructions of Jerusalem or check out a version of Cairo or Baghdad.
VOICEOVER: Mingling with the brisk tone of modern America, we find too, the spice and flavor of the foreign. From Europe and the Orient come resplendent roofs of gold, exotic reminders of different times and civilizations. Adding their individual touches to the scintillant pageant that made the World’s Fair such a unique adventure.
SEEKATZ: And you could see what was at the time called the “hoochie coochie dance,” which we might refer to as a belly dance. People are familiar with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. There’s also a Wild East show, where you can see Bedouin horsemen and what they’re calling like Arab warriors. And so it’s things in popular culture, it’s also film.
TWILLEY: Sadly this was the 1920s, so these were silent films! But there’s the Sheik which made Rudoph Valentino into a star and spawned a sequel, The Son of Sheik. There’s Salome, which was remade in the 50s.
[LILTING FLUTE MUSIC]
MAN: Marcellus, why do the gods favor you above all men? To present you with so divine a gift as Salome?
GRABER: You could also travel to the Middle East in popular music at the time—
SINGER: My heart’s in Arabia tonight / Where stars shine bright / on desert sand. / Where the moon sends blessings with its light / From far above / Oh, land of love. Ohhh, land of love.
TWILLEY: This was not just a temporary fad. The American fascination with all things Arabian and Middle Eastern continued for decades.
SEEKATZ: One of the most fascinating things I found in my research was that in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt is preparing to build a dam. And they know that the dam is going to flood treasures in parts of Egypt and Nubia. And so they don’t have the funds really to secure a lot of those antiquities.
GRABER: And so the Egyptian authorities said: if you send over archaeologists and if you help finance the research, we’ll do a trade. They offered to give a minor temple called the Temple of Dendur to whatever institution, or city, became their partner.
SEEKATZ: Now, this isn’t a story that many people remember. But Indio, California, where the dates are grown, is the number one contender to receive this temple. It’s the number one contender because of a marketing campaign that locals have said, oh, we are America’s Arabia. We have this same type of climate. How wonderful would this be in our hills? Because it would blend right in and you would feel like you’re in Egypt.
TWILLEY: Spoiler alert, Indio did not get the Temple of Dendur, it’s actually one of the treasures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
SEEKATZ: So if you were to go into the Met today and see that Egyptian temple, this is the same temple we’re talking about. That for a lot of people, including major politicians, they thought it was going to end up in Indio.
TWILLEY: Where it could have been the centerpiece of America’s Arabia, surrounded by date palms and In and Out Burger!
GRABER: Eventually, the dates from the Coachella Valley did become a huge success, and then even without the Temple of Dendur or dates from King Tut’s tomb, the region also became a major tourist attraction.
SEEKATZ: And if you were to winter in, let’s say, Los Angeles and spend a few months there, part of that would be you would go out to Palm Springs, maybe you’d take the train, maybe you’d drive. And if you were in Palm Springs, then you would definitely take the Date Palm Highway and drive through these date groves, which felt to a lot of Americans as if it were a foreign place. We might see an Egyptian styled date shop, we might see one in Palm Springs, that’s called The Black Tent tying into this tent, Bedouin imagination. We see Sniff’s Exotic Date Gardens, which has this Moorish Middle Eastern architecture. And then part of the draw is that you go out into the back, and you see the quote unquote, “only Bedouin tent in America.”
TWILLEY: The date growers even renamed the local towns.
SEEKATZ: And we see that the town of Walters becomes known as the town of Mecca, and Mr. Walters is not happy about it. He writes to a USDA scientist who kind of reports this in a letter that he has, that he’s pretty unhappy it’s been renamed Mecca. We see towns called Oasis. We see towns called Edom, which is a reference to the Bible as well.
TWILLEY: Even the Salton Sea, which is a super saline shallow lake right atop the San Andreas fault in the Coachella Valley, got roped into the Middle Eastern makeover.
SEEKATZ: We see people talking about it as if it is the Dead Sea. And it is America’s Dead Sea.
GRABER: And in that region that had been turned into America’s Middle East and the American date palm capital. They also held a huge date festival every year that had camel races and beauty pageants with girls dressed as if they were Scheherezade.
SEEKATZ: And so if you can picture I Dream of Jeannie from the 60s, that is often what this looks like. So it’s quote unquote “harem girl” outfits with bare midriffs and very sheer fabric.
TWILLEY: The date festival continues to this day, although it’s become a little more family friendly.
SEEKATZ: One of the times I’ve seen in the past 10 years, it’s community theater, mostly children. But instead of saying “all the single ladies,” they made a song to “all the Persian ladies” and danced as if they were Beyonce.
GRABER: So that’s the local tourism side, but in terms of the fruit itself—date popularity in America grew as the date industry in the Coachella Valley grew, and it got an extra boost in World War II, when sugar was rationed.
SEEKATZ: So we do see kind of a peak around World War Two. With a lot of Americans eating dates. But I might say it’s definitely having a renaissance now with the different types of diets like the Paleo diet. People who are trying to eat more whole foods are really turning to the date as a type of sweet that’s very much less processed than other things they’re eating.
MARK TADROS: They’re in just about every health bar as a natural sweetener. If you flip over the ingredient statement and look in the back they’re there So the health bar market has grown the date industry quite a bit.
TWILLEY: Mark told us the Deglets all go into health bars these days. And then for the Medjools, Mark told us he sells a full fifty percent of his harvest around Ramadan.
TADROS: Huge surge around Ramadan. Typically, we’ll have a huge surge, you know, coming into the Christmas holiday, and then another huge surge come Ramadan. You know, we’re seeing it more and more consumed year-round, but Ramadan is a massive push for date companies.
GRABER: You might be able to find dates in all those snack bars, but in general, dates really are still a specialty food, for special occasions like Christmas and Ramadan. In part it’s because they’re a special fruit—they take a lot of effort to grow.
TADROS: Yes, there is no product that is grown in the United States that is more labor-intensive than dates. I would compare this to saffron, without the luxury of having that tremendously high price point.
TWILLEY: Mark told us he still does pretty much everything by hand. The first job of the year is dethorning the palms. Then the trees flower, and it is pollination time.
TADROS: So we harvest their pollen, it looks like almost a big club. It’s this big, kind of bulbous brown club looking thing. And inside of it is flowers that produce pollen. So we harvest the pollen from our trees by cutting those clubs off, hanging them to dry and then shaking them. And then we take a vacuum and vacuum all of the pollen back up through a—almost like a screen door. And then that’ll help kind of get rid of all of the flower leaves that fall in. Then we put them in these little puffers, climb up the tree and puffs some pollen on every single flower.
GRABER: When it comes time to harvest, that also is still really labor intensive. They go tree by tree and head up on a cherry picker, it’s a machine that lifts people up to the tree height so they can pick by hand. They harvest just based on when the dates on that tree are ready. As we said earlier, one of their specialties is the yellow, hard, crunchy Barhi.
TWILLEY: This is a thing I did not know at all about dates, but apparently, especially in their homelands in North Africa and the Middle East, people enjoy dates at different stages of ripeness. A Barhi at the yellow stage is technically ripe, but it’s nothing like the brown caramel squidginess I associate with dates.
TADROS: Barhi, you’ve got two different ways of consuming it. In its yellow state, you’re going to find some tannin. Tannin is what you’d find in a really strong Cab. That’s what dries out your palate. But once your palate starts to re-salivate, that’s when the taste buds on your tongue and the rest of your mouth activate. That’s where you start to pick up some of the sugars.
GRABER: That was so wild about tasting crunchy Barhis. They really made my mouth pucker with all those tannins, like the kind you might experience in a really tannic puckery red wine, and then after the dryness I could taste just a little date-y sweetness. But they did slowly soften out on the counter, they looked like bananas ripening. And as they softened the tannins disappeared and they even tasted kind of like ripe mushy bananas along with all those delicious caramel notes. Barhis are genuinely amazing.
TADROS: I’d say you know, 50% of the customers consume them when they’re crunchy, then the other 50% will wait until they’re ripe and then consume them that way.
TWILLEY: So there’s all these varieties, and then there’s the choice between eating your dates yellow and crunchy vs brown and squidgy. But that’s not all. There’s how you eat it, and when it comes to consuming dates, our experts are much more creative than I have ever been!
TADROS: How do I like to eat dates? If I’m eating Medjool, I like to eat them from the freezer. To me, they taste better that way. They never really fully freeze so you can bite into them really cold and it’s just… good experience. When my kids were teething, I used to give them frozen dates to gnaw on, they loved it.
PURUGGANAN: If you actually take kind of ripening dates and you freeze them and then you eat them they’re like they’re like little caramel ice cream balls.
GRABER: Michael had some tips from his travels, too.
PURUGGANAN: Whenever I go to the Middle East, to Dubai or to Abu Dhabi. I will usually go into a store and, I love ginger stuffed dates, so they’re dried dates that have been stuffed with a small piece of candied ginger. I love those. Or candied orange peel. I love those too.
TWILLEY: Nawal’s book contains a handful of traditional date recipes.
NASRALLAH: But of course I have, you know, my favorites. Like the cookies we used to prepare. We call it Kleicha, that was filled with dates. Other Arab countries, for example, they call it maamoul. In Egypt, they call it Ka’ak. I particularly like halva kind of candy we make with dry dates and, and walnuts. As kids, we used to be asked to, you know, pound the dates with the walnuts in a mortar. And we enjoyed this task immensely.
GRABER: For just eating plain, Mark prefers the Barhi, and then when it comes to cooking, he relies on the medjool. And he’s come up with some pretty creative date dishes.
TADROS: It just dawned on me one time at the grocery store, there’s that chicken apple sausage. And I thought to myself, well, you know, chicken date sausage would probably be better, and it was. So I ground the dates actually through a meat grinder. And ground dates kind of look like a ground chicken thigh anyway. Mixed them in with some ground chicken thighs with some sauteed shallots and a little bit of sauteed fennel, and some seasoning. And smoked them in my smoker, they were phenomenal.
TWILLEY: Yes please. Sarah told us she’s a fan of that sausage date combo too.
SEEKATZ: I love dates. I, of course, love date shakes. And I love date ice cream. But I have to say, and I think this surprises people, my favorite way to eat a date is in a savory food. I love cooking up some caramelized onions and adding in some dates and like maybe a poblano pepper. So you have a little bit of spice, and then putting that on a hot dog or hamburger. I’ve had date hamburgers at some different restaurants. And at the Date Festival I suggested to Pink’s Hot Dogs that they create an Indio date dog, which they did and they put dates on it. So it was a win to see the date dog on the menu for a little while. Which was onions, dates, bacon bits, mustard and a little bit of pepper. And it was delicious.
GRABER: For the end of the year, a special shout-out and a huge thanks to a couple of our super spectacular fans who donate at a particularly high level: Monica Donegray and—this is part of a holiday gift, and it’s a bit of an inside joke, but thanks to the 2.5 cats of the canal. Cats in Amsterdam along the canal, thank you!
TWILLEY: Truly, thank you everyone who supports the show. It is a really big piece of what makes this all possible. We literally would not be able to make this show without our listener supporters. And we would not have made this episode without the inspiration and hard work of our dearly beloved producer Sonja Swanson. This is her last episode with us, and we somehow need to replace her—if that person is you, go to gastropod.com/jobs right now.
GRABER: Thanks of course this episode to Tadros and Mark Tadros at Aziz Farms, their Barhis are truly outrageously delicious. Thanks also to Nawal Nasrallah, Michael Purugganan, Sarah Seekatz, and Deborah Thirkhill at Arizona State University.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Dareen Jubeah, who taped the Iftar feast in Jerusalem for us, and to Yadira at Shields Date Garden, who hustled to get us a bunch of different varieties.
GRABER: We are going to be taking a brief break. Not a break from working on the show, because we are going to be hard at work choosing a new producer and also doing research and interviews and generally starting to make all the episodes you’ll be hearing in 2022. But that means we’ll be back in your feeds with an encore show and some highlights from other shows we like in January, and then we’ll be back with a brand new episode in February.
TWILLEY: Happy holidays and all our best for a lovely start to the new year!