DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today, our series Hidden Kitchens takes us to the desert, to the date gardens of California's Coachella Valley. Dates in this country date back to 1898, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began sending teams of botanists and horticulturalist around the globe to find crops that would thrive in the United States. From Morocco, Syria and Algeria, these explorers gathered offshoots of ancient date palms and returned to plant them in the Coachella Valley's desert lands. Today, date gardens and date shops still line the fields and roads of the region, and the marketing, growing and pollination of this biblical fruit remain a source of wonder. The Kitchen Sisters' producers, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, bring us a story they call the Romance and Sex Life of the Date.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: There you can see a female flower is starting to open, the spath has split. The little yellow beads on the strands on the elos, those will be dates.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Spanish spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: The palmeiro climbs up the Palm and works his way around, pollinating each flower one by one.
DOUGLAS ADAIR: My name is Douglas Adair, owner of Pato's Dream Date Gardens, Thermal, California. The halawi and the barhi come from southern Iraq around Basra. The tradition goes back thousands of years, when Alexander the great passed through in 322 BC. This is what he would have been eating - barhi dates.
PATRICIA LAUGHLIN: Dates were tried here in the 1890s. My name is Patricia Laughlin - Laughlin's Date Gardens. I've lived here in the Coachella Valley for 65 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent what they called plant explorers to go to other similar areas of the world and find crops that might do well in this hot southwestern deserts. USDA sent Walter Swingle to North Africa and in the Middle East. The country was very like the conditions down here in Coachella Valley. So Mr. Swingle brought back female date offshoots.
JOHN POPPANO: It wasn't easy. These date offshoots are 60 pounds apiece or so. They have to be cut off the mother palm with a big chisel. I am John Poppano. I'm a horticulturalist. My grandfather had a nursery. He sent my father Paul and my uncle Wilson to collect date palms. They made the first commercial introductions of these palms in the Coachella Valley. In Basra, the port from which Sinbad the sailor always set sail on his hair-raising adventures, we entered the world's greatest date growing country. After Paul's recovery from typhoid, we bought several thousand young date palms. Having been shot at once more, we experienced relief when our 9,000 palms were safely stowed onboard and headed down the Persian Gulf.
LAUGHLIN: As soon as the dates begin producing here in the Coachella Valley, they capitalized on the exotic Middle East Arabian Knights' tales. It was a way to interest people in coming to what otherwise was a rather forbidding, trackless desert. It made it seem more exotic, more romantic.
SARAH SECATES: There was a renaming of towns. In 1904, Walters became Mecca. There are other towns named Oasis, Thermal, Arabia. My name is Sarah Secates. I'm a California historian. I grew up in the Coachella Valley, the date capital of the United States. Investors from Los Angeles would take a camel ride out to the development called the Wald Oasis of Biskra, led by people dressed in Arabian costume. Hollywood films spurred this craze for all things Middle Eastern - the "Queen of Sheba," "Cleopatra," Rudolf Valentino, "The Sheik." The United States in the 1920s is crazy for Egypt.
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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In the shadows of the silence sphinx and the gigantic pyramids.
SECATES: Everything to do with King Tut.
NARRATOR: Carloads of relics, as well as the young king's mummy, were removed.
SECATES: In this tomb, there were treasures, notably goal, but also preserved dates. One man wrote to try and obtain dates from the tomb of Tutankhamun to bring them to the Coachella Valley to put in his date shop.
LAUGHLIN: There were many, many date shops along the highways going west from Indio - maybe 15. We started out selling just out of the kitchen door. My father-in-law would make a date shake in the kitchen for anybody who asked for it.
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NARRATOR: The Shields Date Garden is the only place in the world for you can see and hear the romance and sex life of the dates. Back as far as we have any record of dates, man has cut the male flows from the male palms and placed them in the tops of the female palms.
LAUGHLIN: The first date festival I went to, I was very impressed. They chose Queen Scheherazade and the princesses. And they always had a genie, elephants and camels.
SECATES: If you went to Indio in the 1950s, your bank teller might be wearing a fez. At a restaurant, you waitress could be wearing a harem outfit.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Coachella Valley high school sports teams have been known as the Arabs since the 1930s.
LAUGHLIN: They know about the controversy at Coachella Valley High School, who has had the Arab as their mascot from clear back. It's an Arab who looks very fierce, which is what you want your football team to be. But in today's world, there's some Arab group that felt it was offensive. And so the high school's in the process of reevaluating.
SECATES: By the 1970s, a lot of these mom and pop date growers sold their date groves to big, large-scale agricultural producers. People were concerned with the hostage crisis and the oil crisis - that it would hurt to be associated with the Middle East. But a lot of people were still invested in the agricultural heritage of the date and its Middle Eastern origins.
LAUGHLIN: When the medjools date came in, there were only nine offshoots that all of the present trees come from. These medjools came from the oasis of Boudenib. It's been wiped out by a disease in Algeria and Morocco. We have sent back good plant stock to return to those areas from which they originated. My husband and I visited. It's over the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech - out really in the desert. When we got to Boudenib, the mayor came out to greet us. It was a big occasion. And he said why would anyone from the United States want to come to Boudenib? We had worked with the medjool dates for so many years and to see where they originated was very meaningful for us.
GREENE: That story was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and Lisa Morehouse and mixed by Jim McKee. And you should visit npr.org, there are photos from the 1956 Festival of Dates. This is NPR News.
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