How the Coachella Valley became known for its dates

Bringing the desert fruit to California created a Middle Eastern mirage.

In February 2019, I visited the date gardens of the Coachella Valley and chewed the sweet flesh of dates found nowhere else in the world: Empress, Abada, Blonde Beauties, Brunette Beauties, Honey, McGill’s, Tarbazal and Triumph. I had always thought of American cuisine as ever-expanding. Then I realized there are hundreds of plants, animals and food traditions that are disappearing from my country’s food repertoire, including many rare California varieties.

Dates are the edible fruit of a palm tree: wrinkled, generally brown and about 1.5 to 2 inches long. They belong to a category of fleshy fruits known as drupes, which have a single seed or pit. Drupes include coconuts, olives, black pepper, various nuts and stone fruits like peaches. Dates are very sweet, usually about 60%-70% sugars, including sucrose and fructose, but they also contain about 1.5 grams of fiber, a decent amount of potassium and a little bit of protein.


To propagate dates, you can’t plant a date seed. Well, you can, but like many tree fruits, what grows out of that seed is genetically different from the parent. This is one way a plant ensures survival; genetically diverse offspring have a better chance of continuing to grow, adapt and propagate. Most of the trees grown in this way do not produce edible, or at least desirable, fruit. So if you like attributes of one date palm — say, the dates are particularly plump and sweet — you want to plant a sucker instead. Suckers are tiny palm trees that grow out of the base of the parent tree in the first 10 to 15 years of its life. They are chiseled off the base of the palm and planted, and will begin to produce dates in about 10 to 15 years.

The date palm originated in the area that encompasses the Arabian Peninsula as well as what is today Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They grow specifically in places where there is very little rain but access to water in rivers or underground aquifers. Dates were a part of the human diet thousands of years before agriculture. Dental calculus — that’s plaque — recovered from Neanderthal skeletons in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, revealed minute fossilized plant particles from dates. But dates are also some of the world’s oldest cultivated fruit. In fact, no wild varieties exist today; dates only exist within cultivation.

There are hundreds of plants, animals and food traditions that are disappearing from my country’s food repertoire.

Dates have been grown in the Coachella Valley in Southern California for over 120 years, originally from imported seeds and suckers from Baghdad and Algiers, Pakistan and Egypt. The Coachella Valley and surrounding area resembles the climate and terrain of the Middle East so much that the town where I rented an Airbnb is the site of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, a setup of mock villages designed to train soldiers for deployment in the Middle East. A friend of mine who trained there called it “a damn near carbon copy of Iraq and most parts of Afghanistan.” It’s not uncommon to have more than 100 days a year over 100 degrees. But aquifers run deep underground, filling springs and oases. The hot temperatures, and access to plentiful water, make the area ideal for growing dates.

Date palms, Coachella Valley, California.

There are hundreds, potentially thousands, of varieties of dates worldwide. Today, it’s estimated that over 90% of the dates grown in the U.S. come from the Coachella Valley, about 35,000 tons annually. Some dates, like the Medjool, are particularly plump, sweet and fruity. Other dates are very fleshy, like the Barhi; some, like Halawi dates, are chewy. Still others are dry, like the Thoory date. Although the valley primarily grows commercial date varieties like Medjools and Deglet Noors, several small farmers still carry on the tradition of growing unique date varieties that were developed in the area a century ago.

Many of the valley’s earliest farms — called “date gardens” to evoke the biblical Garden of Eden — wouldn’t last more than a decade or two: Imported suckers died in transit after the multi-week journey from Africa or the Middle East, locals sold inferior shoots from ornamental date plantings, insect infestations. But farmers who did succeed sold dates directly to customers, and by the 1950s they had created a tourist destination. California Highway 111 cut through the valley and was lined with date shops. Each shop had its own gimmick to attract customers: The Pyramid date shop was in the shape of a pyramid, and Sniff’s Exotic Date Garden had set up a tent like the ones used by nomadic tribes in the Sahara. Other shops sprang up with architectural elements copied from India, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. The proprietors felt the visual aesthetic should play off the desert surroundings and the date palm’s history to create an exotic destination a tourist could reach without leaving the U.S.

Today, it’s estimated that over 90% of the dates grown in the U.S. come from the Coachella Valley, about 35,000 tons annually.

To get some perspective on the culture surrounding dates in the Coachella Valley, I spoke to my friend, the scholar Sarah Seekatz. Seekatz is the world’s foremost expert on Coachella Valley dates and grew up in the area. She explained that California has a way of “stealing the history, remaking the history in their own way, and then using it to profit.” Hollywood does it; Disneyland does it; and if you’ve spent any time in the state, you’ve probably come across a historical site related to “mission history.” The interpretation of the latter is often referred to as the “Spanish fantasy past,” a made-up world where Spanish colonialism benefited the Native Americans; new white migrants could connect their history back to these European settlers. Through these mission sites, California sold time travel back to an imaginary and romanticized Mexico and a nostalgic “old Southwest” so effectively that there were Americans in the 1890s writing to different tourist bureaus asking, “Do I need a passport to come to California?”

So, too, the Coachella Valley began to manufacture its own creative history, based not on Spanish missions but on the valley’s connection to the Middle East via the date palms. 

This Arabian fantasy — monolithic, oversimplified, fetishized — brought people to the valley and into the date shops. The travelers would then taste date varieties from the Middle East that had never been available in America before, and special dates that could only be found in the Coachella Valley. Customers would buy a few boxes of dates, and get on the mailing lists for their favorite shops. Every November, after the date harvest, a catalog would arrive at their home address, and it would become a tradition to order dates from Coachella annually for Christmas.

Scenes from the roadside knight that points the way to the gardens.

I SET MY MAPS destination for Shields Date Gardens and took the highway through the Morongo Valley, the mountaintops of the pass peaked in snow. Before the Shields family settled in Coachella, this road was unpaved, and the trip from Twentynine Palms to Indio would have taken two days. But by the 1950s, the roads had been improved. The creation of these highways, and the mid-century obsession with driving, were imperative to the formation of the date industry.

Floyd Shields was perhaps the most innovative of the date shop owners in terms of gimmicks. A passerby can’t miss the knight: a cutout at least 25 feet high, painted in full armor, his shield decorated with shields and the name “Shields,” points from the road to the storefront. The roadside knight was built in 1954; the store he gestures to, in 1950.

Historically, another eye-catcher would have enticed tourists: roadside signs boasting of Shields’ educational slideshow, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” Originally a live talk given by Shields himself, it’s not as lascivious as it sounds. The presentation explained date propagation and farming, to impress upon Shields’ visitors how difficult and costly it was to produce a high-quality date. 

When I pulled into the parking lot, there were towering date palms everywhere. It was unlike anything I’d seen before, and there was definitely a biblical feel about it. And the current owners have decided to push the biblical connection. Behind the store is a garden made up of rosebushes and date trees too old and tall to be good fruit producers; for a few dollars’ admission, you can stroll through this garden and see silver fiberglass Jesus statues portraying moments from the Bible. Sarah Seekatz later pointed out that there were two sides to creating this tourist mirage of visiting fantastical Arabia. One aspect is religion, Christianity specifically, even though Jerusalem is attached to many faiths. 

When these date palms were planted, many Americans believed that those living in the Holy Land were still living the lives of those in the Bible, virtually unchanged in the last 2,000 years. The date industry has long played off that imagery; the advertisement for the very first Date Festival in 1921 was a Nativity scene. A bright star over a desert landscape leads the way for a caravan of camels and men in traditional head coverings. The catchphrase below the image is “All ‘The Wise Men’ Are Going.”

Shields’ religious statues might seem a strange juxtaposition to the “Sex Life of the Date” signs in the gift shop. But the other way that Americans have largely understood the culture of the Middle East is through the stories of The Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights, a collection of medieval, or perhaps even ancient, stories told by the main character, Scheherazade, to a king. 

When I pulled into the parking lot, there were towering date palms everywhere. It was unlike anything I’d seen before, and there was definitely a biblical feel about it.

The first translated version of this work was available in English in the early 18th century. These stories include the famous tale of Aladdin, but feature many other thrilling adventures with ghosts, monsters and sex. So, Shields embraces both aspects of the traditional American understanding of the Middle East: Jesus is out back, but come learn about (date) sex in the front.

Back at the visitor center, Shields’ date showroom awaited me, featuring free samples of all their date varieties. I tasted the Blonde Beauty date first, and after that, nothing could compare. I was in love. Blonde Beauties are a butterscotch color with a heavenly texture; drier than many commercial dates, with a papery skin, chewy flesh, and a satisfying bit of crunch from crystallized sugar. And the flavor? Every bite is buttery brown sugar caramel.

Scenes from the retro counter where the employees use date crystals made from Blonde Beauties to flavor their date shakes.

Shields makes date milkshakes from the Blonde Beauties. The Shieldses didn’t invent date shakes; that honor has been credited to Russ Nicoll, the owner of the now-closed Valerie Jean Date Shop. The story goes that he heard “that some Middle Easterners existed solely on goat milk and dates.” Dates and goat or camel milk are a popular breakfast, dinner or snack throughout the Middle East, and a staple of nomadic peoples. 

Nicoll was first credited for the invention in print in 1938, but the date shakes were already nationally known by then. Milkshakes were having a moment, as soda fountains boomed in the wake of Prohibition. The “drink mixer” and “liquefier blender” were both released in 1922. So, the date shake was born. The shakes became broadly popular in the Coachella Valley, and to this day are still considered an important part of the tourist experience in the area. “There was a time when date shakes were very easy to find in local restaurants,” Seekatz told me. “In fact, I remember the Del Taco in Indio selling date shakes too.”

Shields blends vanilla ice milk with their Date Crystals — dried, shattered Blonde Beauties that Floyd Shields, ever the innovator, created to use up dates that didn’t make the grade. My first slurp was cooling, necessary after a walk in the sunny date garden. Then the texture hit me: creamy, with a little crunch from the ice. Then the flavor: caramel. Pure liquid caramel with a little fruitiness at the end.

In addition to the Blonde Beauties, Shields sells several other rare dates: deep brown Brunette Beauties, the other Shields original date; Honey dates, one of the Davall seedlings; and Abada dates, a deep black, very sweet date originally found growing feral by date farmer D.G. Sniff in 1936. They’re so dark and shiny, they reminded me of scarab beetles.

I asked the operations manager, Jessica Duenow, why they bothered to grow these rare, niche dates. “For the history and the legacy,” she answered immediately. “And for someone that might think there are only Medjool dates out there, we want to show them something different.”


Date palms, Coachella Valley, California.

 IN 1947, the annual Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival was officially launched. It adapted the valley’s Middle Eastern theme, with the fairgrounds surrounded by a wall that is a mishmash of Islamic architecture: domes and cupolas, stripes of light and dark brick, and scalloped arches.

The fair architecture was designed by Harry Oliver, a Hollywood production designer known for his whimsical sets. In 1949, two years after the festival started, Oliver completed the Old Baghdad Stage. Designed to look like a “caliph’s palace in medieval Baghdad,” with a minaret, keyhole arches, and windows with carved wood latticework, it evokes the movie magic of Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad more than it does an actual street in Baghdad.

The stage became home to the Annual Arabian Nights Pageant. Floyd Shields wrote in 1957, “The presentation of the Arabian Nights Pageant has a cast of more than 150 people taking part either in the cast or the production staff of this civic endeavor. …Nowhere else will visitors be able to witness such a spectacle as this — a pageant that will thrill young and old alike with its drama and beauty.”

Each year, the pageant boasts a new script based on one of the Arabian Nights stories, and a story wasn’t repeated until 1984. “They always had a genie, elephants and camels,” a witness remembered of the early years. “Lots of chiffon, sequins, and the costumes showed quite a bit of flesh.”

"Nowhere else will visitors be able to witness such a spectacle as this — a pageant that will thrill young and old alike with its drama and beauty.”

The costumes were also original, created every year. Not just for the pageant, but also for Scheherazade’s court, a beauty contest featuring 10 or more teenage girls. The pageant winners donned feathered headpieces, sequined bras, sheer harem pants, and showed bare midriffs — like the costumes in the television show I Dream of Jeannie. The high school girls in Scheherazade’s courts appeared at events and in press photos locally and nationally to entice tourists; they are often posed adoringly around a single man, alluding to a shah and his harem. “They were literally selling dates with the bodies of women,” Seekatz said.

The festival, and pageant, continue to this day. I attended them on a Saturday in February; it was sunny and the temperatures would hit the mid-60s during the day. Seekatz met a friend and me to act as our guide. Her grandmother had danced in a harem girl outfit in the Arabian Nights Pageant long ago, and Seekatz herself went on her first date to the festival.

At the fair, I rode a camel (slowly, in a circle). We toured a large building featuring prizewinning produce and a single date vendor, as well as displays of date memorabilia and a pavilion explaining the date-growing process. We watched a date-cooking contest with prize money funded by the California Date Board. But for the most part, the event was a normal county fair: A 4-H barn was filled with sheep awaiting judgment, Quonset huts housed prizewinning baked goods and a gem show, and, in the stadium, there would be drag races and a Salt-N-Pepa concert the following weekend.

As the sun set and the carnival rides began to glow, it was time to take our seats for the pageant. The stage was illuminated in fuchsia and indigo as over 40 performers, ranging from children not more than 10 to seasoned community theater legends, marched out. They were dressed in classically fantastical Middle Eastern costumes in a rainbow of colored polyesters and sequins. The pageant was two hours long and featured an extraordinary amount of musical numbers and a dedicated dance troupe of local teens. My favorite moment of the show was a rendition of “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, rearranged over a rapid drumbeat. 

By the end, most of the audience seats were empty. The show’s length and the falling temperatures had driven people away. 

And there was the discordance of appropriating historical Islamic culture to celebrate the American date industry: When I visited, the U.S. was enforcing a travel ban against citizens of many of the countries the pageant allegedly celebrated.

The festival went through big changes when a version of the Middle East different from I Dream of Jeannie began to appear on the news: the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinians, the 1973 oil crisis, and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. While Americans had previously viewed the Middle East through the stereotypes of harem girls and wealthy sheiks, in the 1970s, different Muslim stereotypes took over: oil barons and religious extremists. Then the U.S. entered the first Gulf War in 1990, and the country was changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001. “And then in the larger popular culture,” Seekatz told me, “it was not OK to celebrate the Middle East.”

As demographics changed and fewer residents were directly involved in date farming, the fair became less of a tourist destination and more a local county fair. French fries and a monster truck show fit the needs of the Coachella Valley population in the 21st century more than dates and camel races.

For many, the remaining Orientalist elements are “less about creating this idea of Arabia,” Seekatz clarified, “and more about carrying on this nostalgia and the legacy of what this area was in the ’60s.”

But they could celebrate dates without a pageant, my friend offered. It could be about the food and the agriculture. There weren’t many date-themed eats and activities, and we were left wanting a food festival on par with Gilroy, California’s garlic festival. Gilroy’s festival draws 100,000 people over a single weekend.

It turned out that my friend’s comment was prophetic. The fall after my visit, a new date festival was founded.

Scenes from Shields Date Gardens in Indio, California, including a pond and water feature.

AFTER DECADES of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and North Africa, many new Americans have emigrated from that part of the world. As more people come, Middle Eastern foodways have become a part of American food. Most grocery stores carry hummus, for example, and many popular cookbooks reflect this shift.

The growing Middle Eastern population has brought more variations of fresh dates and date products to markets across the country. Ramadan now represents a spike in sales second only to the traditional Christmas season. When I first interviewed Seekatz, she mentioned seeing fresh Barhi dates for sale for the first time — a treat only available in date-growing regions, well known by people from the Arabian Peninsula. Most dates are harvested after they’ve dried on the tree and become fully sweet, but Barhis can be harvested at several stages of ripeness. When they’re yellow and underripe, they have the texture of a raw potato and the astringency of a dry wine. A little riper, and they have the soft juiciness of a plum. Shields sells fresh Barhis in season, and the summer following my Coachella trip, I tried some from a local grocery store in Portland, Oregon. 

The remaining Orientalist elements are “less about creating this idea of Arabia, and more about carrying on this nostalgia and the legacy of what this area was in the ’60s.”

In November 2019, Mark Tadros launched the Date Harvest Festival. Tadros is the president of Aziz Farms, a small date garden his father, an Egyptian immigrant, founded in the 1980s. The single-day festival attracted almost 5,000 attendees and sold over $10,000 worth of dates.

It was the senior Tadros who first began buying fresh Barhi dates from farmers and driving into Los Angeles to sell them to the Egyptian community, literally out of the trunk of his car. Today, the Tadros farm specializes in Barhis. Tadros returned to help manage the family farm nine years ago after a career as a chef. Aziz Farms was the only vendor selling dates at the Riverside County Fair in 2019, and Tadros participated out of an interest in preserving the festival’s connection to small date farms. But while he was there, he had a revelation: The National Date Festival was originally held in February to sustain an interest in dates outside of the traditional Christmas season. But over the 20th century, many date growers began selling their dates to packing houses at harvest time; by February, there was no economic incentive for date growers to participate. Tadros thought that a refocused festival, scheduled in the fall, might shine a fresh light on Coachella’s date industry.

The Date Harvest Festival featured “dates that you’ve never heard of,” including his own family farm’s Red Barhis, incredibly rare in America; food vendors selling date-focused foods like date cotton candy and date-chicken sausage; samples of date-based products like date syrup and date vodka; cooking demos; live bands; a Ferris wheel; and a “family zone with tractors to climb on.”

Tadros “wants consumers to associate dates with the Coachella Valley, the same way they know Idaho’s russet potato and Napa Valley’s wine.” He wants the Coachella Valley to be known as the place that grows the best dates money can buy.

Tadros said he’s a proponent of a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships mentality. “I believe that we raised awareness. I believe that people really enjoyed it,” Tadros told me of the festival. He’s already thinking about the festival in year two, and how agro-tourism can be brought back to the Valley. Unfortunately, the global pandemic stopped the gathering in 2020, and it remains to be seen if it will continue. The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, in the meantime, has fallen under new management that has begun to enforce changes—including requiring all food vendors to feature a date-themed item.

A big part of bringing attention to Coachella’s rare dates is education. The American public would need to not just ask for “a date,” but to seek out a California-grown Medjool or, even better, a Blonde Beauty. There’s nothing a small farm wants more than to plant a crop they know will sell out. And that kind of demand means unique dates will continue to be propagated in Coachella.

Even so, the date industry in the U.S. today is still niche. In California, the domestic industry is made up of fewer than 100 growers, who employ about 1,400 people and produce about 35,000 tons — equivalent to the same amount of dates as we import. Although a few of the old date farms remain,  most of the date farms aren’t the small family-run businesses that existed when the Date Festival started. When the first generations of Coachella farmers began to pass away, their children didn’t want to take on the difficult labor and financial risk of date growing, especially specialty strains. Only a dozen producing palms are left of the TR date, and only three McGill date palms are known to exist. I was not able to locate dates of either variety on my trip.

    In California, the domestic industry is made up of fewer than 100 growers, who employ about 1,400 people and produce about 35,000 tons of dates.

The date industry has shifted to wholesale, with massive farms producing one or two standardized varieties for companies like Dole. As consumers, what we expect from food is consistency. We have an expectation that every package of dates (or craisins, or red seedless grapes, or whatever) we buy from the grocery store will taste the same.

In 1955, the USDA published a report of 39 different unique American varieties of dates. Some of these still exist, only in the Coachella Valley. Like the Empress dates, which hang like chandeliers of dark red rubies between the palm fronds and taste of sweet spice and caramel. But then there are also lost dates like the rich Desert Dew and the foggy-skinned Smoky. Where are these dates now? Were they not worth propagating, or are they treasures waiting to be rediscovered?   

Excerpted from the forthcoming Endangered Eating: America’s Vanishing Foods. Copyright (C) 2023 by Sarah Lohman. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and the author of the bestselling book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. She focuses on the history of food as a way to access the stories of diverse Americans. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and NPR. Lohman has lectured across the country, from the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC to The Culinary Historians of Southern California. Lohman is currently based out of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Her latest book,
Endangered Eating: America’s Vanishing Foods will be released with W.W. Norton & Co. on October 24, 2023.

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