A photograph of a variety of dates in boxes

Dates: The Edible Jewel of the Desert

As a youngster and even as a college student, a highlight of the drive from Tucson to Southern California was the anticipation of stopping for a date shake.

That sumptuous combination of vanilla ice cream studded with dates was divine. We didn’t realize we were enjoying the world’s oldest fruit and maybe one of Mother Nature’s first superfoods, and I’m not referring to the ice cream.

The place of origin of date palms is uncertain. According to some sources, it originated from the Fertile Crescent region straddling Egypt and Mesopotamia. Others that they’re native to the Persian Gulf area or even western India. Fossil records show the date palm has existed at least 50 million years.

Traders eventually spread dates around southwest Asia, northern Africa and Spain. In the early 18th century, Spaniards brought the fruit to Mexico and California, where in 1706, the site for the future Mission San Ignacio on the Baja Peninsula was discovered by Francisco María Piccolo, who noted the area’s palm-lined oasis.

In the mid-1920s, Tucson horticulturist Maurice L. Reid and his family frequently rode their horses in the desert area we know today as Casas Adobes. It was there he noticed vegetation in one section had much less frost damage than the surrounding land.

He discovered a thermal belt existing in an area where cold air currents were diverted by the mountains and accumulated in riverbeds and washes, leaving the land warmer and often frost free in winter. After purchasing 450 acres in that very area and establishing Tucson’s first citrus and date groves, his landholdings grew to 1,500 acres.

While the citrus thrived, the dates not so much. Turns out the one thing dates don’t like as they finish ripening is rain (it ferments the fruit and attracts insects) and since that final stage coincides with monsoon season, that’s the reason they’re not cultivated here to the extent they are in Yuma and California.

Next time you’re near Orange Grove and Oracle roads, look west and you’ll notice stately date palms. From August to October, those trees annually produce several tons of Barhi, Halawi, Medjool and Zahidi dates from The Urban Grove, a private residence and event space, and Medjools from neighboring Desert Treasures, Tucson’s only remaining operating orange and date groves. 

Retired electrical engineer turned date farmer, Saudi Arabian native Yousef Alabdulrahim, owner of The Urban Grove with his native Tucsonan wife, Sabrina Rigas, says everyone should eat three dates a day for the nutritional components they contain: Fiber; copper, potassium, manganese, vitamins A, B-6 and magnesium; natural antioxidants polyphenols. Dates are also cholesterol and sodium free and are equal parts fructose and glucose.

A little side note, as I’m wrapping this up, I’m finishing my third date.

News & Notes
If you’re going to Saturday’s Women’s Showcase at La Encantada, stop by the main stage from 2-2:30 p.m. and say hi to master decorator/baker Patricia Ordóñez Beattie and me. Patricia will be demonstrating cupcake decorating and providing yummy samples, too.

April classes are filling up fast! Two Mother’s Day classes taught by Patricia – floral cupcakes bouquet decorating for Kid Chefs ages 6-10, and long stemmed red roses cookies bouquet decorating for Junior Chefs ages 11-15 – will create made with love edible gifts perfect for the mom, stepmom, grandmother or role model in their life.

On April 12, Chef Riley Chandler returns with his latest pasta class: Spring Gnocchi Italian & Parisienne Style featuring his Grandma Stancato’s potato gnocchi recipe Chef will use to make sweet pea gnocchi in an herb cream sauce and gnocchi à la Parisienne with goat cheese, leeks and lemons.

On April 14, Patricia teaches an Easter Egg Cake Decorating Workshop, guiding you step-by-step to create a showstopping three dimensional cake serving 10-12 that will wow your family and friends.

On April 19, celebrate Asia’s vibrant food scene with chef, food writer and photographer Jackie Tran for a food adventure making Bánh Xèo, savory Vietnamese crepes. It may be the yummiest dish you’ve never heard of.

On April 27, join sommelier and beekeeper Noel Patterson for his What’s the Buzz honey tasting class. Noel will guide you tracing what you smell and taste to the flora and exact southern Arizona origin location as you sample 6 different Sonoran Desert honeys on fresh fruits, cheeses and nuts.

You’ve got to check out FarmDrop. Thanks to Gallery of Food Chef/Owner Kristine Jensen for bringing the concept to Tucson. FarmDrop is an e-commerce solution for small-scale producers and rural communities left out of the online grocery shopping trend. It’s creating resilient, regenerative food networks that better serve food producers, increase community food access and connectivity, while sustaining jobs and businesses. The harvest-to-order model reduces waste by ensuring customers get the freshest of what their neighbors make, while producers make efficient use of their labor, product and time, leaving marketing and distribution to FarmDrop.

Wishing you joy in the kitchen,

Date Shake
Yield: 3 16 oz. drinks

3 cups premium vanilla ice cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup pitted dates

1. Combine in a blender just until smooth, ensuring there are plenty of date chunks.

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