If you’re driving down Highway 111 in Palm Springs, it’s hard to miss the giant wooden knight beckoning you into the parking lot of Shields Date Garden. There, you can stroll among date palms and biblical statues, watch the 1940s educational film “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date,” or pull up to the diner-style counter and order a paper cup full of the Palm Springs specialty known as the date shake.
Floyd Shields began cultivating the Middle Eastern fruit in his orchard in 1924. Twelve years later, he transformed some of his dates into an oat-like ingredient known as “date crystals.” They blended perfectly with vanilla ice cream and milk. The date shake was born.
Since then, many other orchards, cafes, and roadside markets in Southern California’s Coachella Valley have contributed their own takes on the sweet, caramel-flavored concoction. While a traditional version simply contains vanilla ice cream and “very cold milk,” others include ingredients such as banana, nutmeg, cinnamon, gelato, or Greek yogurt.
Palm Springs’ warm, dry climate is an ideal habitat for date palms, which is why the United States government brought the plants from the Middle East in the early 19th century to test cultivation. The project was a massive success, growing into a multimillion dollar industry. (The area is responsible for 95 percent of the country’s dates.) The greater Coachella Valley enthusiastically embraced its cash crop. In homage—or as clever branding—towns took on names such as Oasis and Mecca, and date festivals celebrating the fruit and Middle Eastern culture became annual events.
While the Coachella desert provided a great setting, date farmers, known as palmeros, still had plenty of work to do. The date is remarkably difficult to cultivate. The trees take 15 years to mature and palmeros must manually remove male flowers and shake their pollen over females. Although this job has now fallen to machines, visitors to Palm Springs can still see hand-pollinating demonstrations at various orchards.
Where to Try It
Shields Date Garden80225 US Highway 111 , Indio, California, 92201-6538, United States
Shields' operation includes a cafe, a garden of date palms sprouting around biblical sculptures, and demonstrations.
Hadley Fruit Orchards47993 Morongo Trail, Cabazon, California, 92230-2112, United States
Their shake is made with Deglet Noor dates and can also include cinnamon, nutmeg, and banana.