Phoenix has been a longtime hub for my family. My uncle moved there before I was born, so it was the regular vacation destination for my immediate family. With my aunt in California, it also proved to be a good meeting place for my extended family. Traditions and travel routines have morphed over the years, but Phoenix continues to be a spot that draws in both my immediate and extended family members. Coming from Michigan, my nuclear family always flew, but my aunt and her family (the Kayes) in Los Angeles were able to drive. They made those drives sound like so much fun; the interstate from LA might have been a rollercoaster. I actually don’t have many concrete examples explaining why it sounded so much fun; it was more the aura of the road trip than the activities. However, there was one thing they raved about: the date shake at Shields Date Garden in Indio, California. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the Kayes blather about date shakes, I would have at least 38 dollars.
Now that I live in LA, I finally had to opportunity to join in for the carnival ride, masquerading as a road trip, on the interstate. I had flown to Phoenix the night before Thanksgiving, but I had only purchased a one-way plane ticket so that I could drive back to LA with my aunt and uncle, and partake in their famous tradition. We piled into her Mazda on Sunday morning, planning to stop in Indio for date shakes, and Cabazon for outlet shopping, and a quick casino trip for my uncle. It took a few hours to hit Indio with traffic, and everyone was ready for a date shake by the time we pulled up to Shields. My aunt informed me that there are other places along the highway that also serve date shakes, but only Shields makes them by hand with old fashioned milk shake mixers; other places use a pre-made mix delivered via a frozen yogurt-esque machine.
We walked into Shields, bombarded with date paraphernalia everywhere we looked. My aunt and I made a beeline for the restroom, and when we emerged, my uncle had already taken the liberty of ordering us shakes, which sat before us on the counter, like white beacons of hope. I was sort of appalled that he ordered a large shake for me, but later it was disclosed that they only came in one size. My uncle was already contently slurping away at his. I had never had a date shake, nor had I done any preliminary research on this delicacy. I knew my aunt and uncle wouldn’t have lead me astray on this matter, so I took a big gulp of my massive shake. To quote my aunt, it tastes like caramel. It is rich, and thick, and has a burnt sugar quality, as dates do essentially broil in the dessert sun as they grow. The date shakes are actually made from date crystals, which are small pieces of dried date, and they do give the shake a crunch, crystalline texture, sort of akin to the crunchy morsels in deeply aged Gouda.
Shields has more date-related products than I knew existed, including of course a wide variety of dates, including free samples. There are far more types of dates than I ever knew existed, but they showcase Medjools, which are apparently a particularly prized varietal. The also carry an array of local honey, fruit, post cards, date crystals, date-centric literature, and a movie that runs continuously on date production, cheekily called The Romance and Sex Life of a Date. Sadly, the theater reeked of mildew, and I didn’t watch it. I wouldn’t have wanted that aroma to interfere with my delicious fruit-caramel milk shake.
December 6, 2014