Digging Into the Sweet History of the Date Shake - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

In 1932, Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr headed into the Coachella Valley, a long stretch of the Sonoran Desert that encompasses Indio, Mecca, Oasis, and other towns along California’s old blue highways. About a hundred miles east of his usual beat, Carr found plenty to gripe about. The streets of Palm Springs were “gay with flappers and trick clothes.” There was as much solitude, he harrumphed, as there was at Seventh and Broadway back home. As many as 100 airplanes a day clattered up the joint. The newsman did find one thing he liked despite the tourists and gadabouts: a new “Prohibition drink” locals called a date milkshake.

Midcentury Mai Tais and swank poolside Martinis notwithstanding, the date milkshake has reigned as the Coachella Valley’s signature drink for almost a century. Menus at local diners, swim clubs, resorts, candy shops, and lunch counters list the blend of milk, ice cream, and sweet dates harvested from the area’s abundant date palms. Across the region, the shake—or some version of it—is ubiquitous. Pop culture historian Charles Phoenix is such a fan of date shakes that he’s included stops to sample them on his guided bus tours of the area. “To have a date shake in Palm Springs is a moment, an absolute Coachella Valley moment. You haven’t done Palm Springs or the Coachella Valley without a date shake.”

Phoenix has a few favorite shops, but he’s unequivocal about where a first-timer should go for one of these momentous concoctions. “The ultimate place for a date shake is Shields Date Garden,” he says. “That’s the real-deal place, with the knight in shining armor pointing to the 1950s sales room. Get the date shake and watch the film.”

Dates are the fruit of Phoenix dactylifera, slender palm trees cultivated for millennia in the Middle East. Around 1900, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that the Coachella Valley’s blazing hot summers, low humidity, and deep aquifer made it an ideal site to grow date palms. USDA employees called agricultural explorers, intent on helping America compete with the best the world offered, selected cultivars culled from North Africa and the Middle East for their delicious, high-quality fruits. Enormous, sticky Medjools are perennially popular, but California growers lean heavily into a smaller, honey-hued Algerian variety called Deglet Noor, with flesh so translucent that a sunbeam can reveal each fruit’s seed. Either makes an outstanding shake.

“To have a date shake in Palm Springs is a moment, an absolute Coachella Valley moment. You haven’t done Palm Springs or the Coachella Valley without a date shake.” —Charles Phoenix

Most accounts trace the first date milkshake to Russell Nicoll’s Valerie Jean Date Shop south of Thermal, California, around 1930. Temperatures of 100 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit can roast the town for months on end. Plenty of years, the annual rainfall wouldn’t fill a shot glass. People were eager for something, anything, to stave off the heat. Once Nicoll added chopped dates to a vanilla milkshake, that soda fountain standard began to morph into the quintessential Coachella drink. The shake didn’t merely keep heat at bay; its caramel and toffee tastes with hints of chocolate and molasses, plus dates’ intense sweetness, made it a sensation: already familiar, yet new. By the end of the 1930s, shops were selling date milkshakes in Los Angeles and as far north as Oregon.

Up the highway from Valerie Jean, Floyd Shields had been selling dates at his farm in Indio since 1924. As part of his pitch, he gave informal talks about dates and date palms. Those talks evolved into the film Charles Phoenix mentioned: The Romance and Sex Life of the Date. For its time, the title was titillating, almost scandalous. Shields ramped up the nudge-nudge angle by naming two of his 1927 date varieties Blonde and Brunette. In 1936, Shields trademarked another creation: date crystals. At a glance, the bits of hard, shredded dates look like nubbins of fine mulch. But they’re shelf-stable, have a strong date taste, and dissolve readily in water or milk to form a thick, smooth paste. They are, in other words, ideal for blending with ice cream.

Store supervisor Alma Arenas explains that during the high season, which runs roughly from Thanksgiving to mid-May, Shields sells around 500 date shakes daily. “But with COVID and everything, we just don’t get as many people,” she says. “Still, we make about 200 shakes a day now.” Behind her, two workers prep cup after cup for the expected crowds. A parking lot sign in the form of a towering armored knight points them to the counter. Although Shields remains a working date farm, renovations have turned the old gardens into an oasis of ponds, miniature waterfalls, and bridges. Statuary scenes depicting the life of Jesus—recent additions to the grounds—draw some visitors. The less religiously inclined can wander among the fruit trees, shake in hand, in this peaceful refuge from the dust and commotion of the desert.

Russell Nicoll’s original date milkshake was such a simple concept that it led to countless iterations. His chopped dates have largely given way to prepared pastes, with textures ranging from velvety to downright chunky. Windmill Market, near the gigantic turbines north of Palm Springs, serves a version that’s almost chewy, with flecks of fruit. Some shops, such as Lappert’s in downtown Palm Springs, use high-end ice cream and add a fillip of whipped cream. The health-conscious crowd, taken aback by the calorie load of a 24-ounce date shake, shave off sugar and fat by swapping in ice milk, fat-free milk, or frozen yogurt. Some replace ice cream with frozen bananas and ice. Recipes that once made a single old-school date shake now may read, “serves four.” Coffee with dates is a classic combination, and while many shops offer a coffee ice cream option, at King’s Highway, the restaurant at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs, savvy diners sometimes order their date shakes affogato-style, topped with hot espresso.

In addition to making modest adjustments of cayenne, hemp seeds, CBD oil, cinnamon, and other inclusions, staff at Fruit Wonders in Palm Springs will blend spinach and kale into a green date shake. (This, however, is more properly a smoothie; the dates are incidental.) At Bootlegger Tiki in the former Don the Beachcomber spot, bartenders routinely incorporate nontraditional ingredients—such as Chartreuse and mezcal—into tropical drinks, and bar manager Carlos Mares makes Tino’s Date, a sort of inverted and spiked date shake. For this, Mares blends local date purée with bourbon, pear brandy, Aperol, and tropical syrups, then garnishes the lot with a scoop of Coachella date ice cream from Shop(pe), a nearby ice cream takeaway.

And near Interstate 10, the last big date shake place (or the first, depending on which direction drivers are heading) is Hadley Fruit Orchards. Cars from far-flung states pull into the lot. Travelers emerge in ones and twos and small clusters to stretch and yawn. Strapping on masks, they amble to the modern little café, some already snapping photos. General manager Kelly DeGraw says that Hadley’s, which opened in 1931, sells 2,000 to 3,000 date shakes each week to travelers from around the world. “This is the gateway to the coast,” he says. “Anyone driving into L.A. from the east drives through here. Tour buses come with people from Italy, France, Russia, China, all over. Bus drivers stop here and tell a little story about us.” Customers can add chocolate, peanut butter, bananas, malted milk, strawberries.

“Even extra dates,” DeGraw offers with a hint of can-you-believe-that? admiration. “People like that.”

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend