My Best Date Ever
The sweetest experience you can imagine — with recipes
Have you ever taken room temp butter, fork-mashed a super fresh date into it, added cinnamon and salt, and spread it on hot crusty toast? I really don’t know what’s better than that.
Whenever my parents went on trips, they brought things back for us. Usually, it was something edible or a tee shirt; one time my dad brought me back these ridiculous button covers — I think he was in Wyoming, or someplace else totally foreign and awe-inspiring to me. (The button covers, however, were not awe-inspring and never got worn.) And sometimes, he brought me dates, one of my favorite foods.
To me, dates are perfect. I have zero sweet tooth, but there are things I make exceptions for, like sour patch watermelons, and cotton candy, and dates. And the dates I was recently introduced to, those grown by Joan Smith of Rancho Meladuco Date Farm in the Coachella Valley of California — she’s responsible for the above dates-on-toast concoction — are the best dates I’ve ever had. (I was thrilled to be able to introduce them to Mark, who couldn’t believe how good they are). They’re so sweet and tender they practically taste like someone’s injected them with a syringe full of sugar water — and I mean this in a good way, despite my sweets aversion.
Originally from Bakersfield, California, and a CPA by trade, Joan is a bit of a sentiment junkie. “I'm so proud to be a sixth generation Californian; I love our farmers, I love the nostalgia of the old date shops that used to be in the desert, all the romanticism of farming and what this industry was within that community in the 50s. In the 50s there were over 200 different roadside date stands. Everywhere you went, there were people selling dates.” Now, she bemoans, “they’ve been relegated to the fruitcake ingredient, third shelf underneath the apple bin. There’s just no love.”
Joan says this from firsthand knowledge — it was not so long ago that she herself had a date aversion. Nearly 20 years ago, she and her husband, Craig Smith, acquired a 200-acre ranch in the Coachella Valley. There were maybe six date palms there, which the family harvested with the help of a palmero, an extremely skilled farmworker who climbs ladders with a machete to harvest dates (not the easiest or safest job, as you might imagine). Every fall the family was swimming in dates and didn’t know what to do with them — and Joan didn’t like them. “I didn’t grow up eating dates. And I’m one of those bratty eaters, where if it’s ugly and weird, I won’t try it.” Craig loves dates, though; he grew up eating them and finally got Joan to try one — when she was 42. “I was like, ‘Wait, whaaat? Where have I been? Damn, these are really good!’”
Harboring an abundance of riches, Joan started giving dates to neighbors, and bringing them to the café where she got her coffee. The response was, typically: “These are the best dates ever and you need to figure out how to sell them. Can I buy more?” Finally, Joan realized she had something special, and the seed was sown — pun intended.
The family had extra land on the ranch, all with a lot of salt in the soil, perfect for dates, which can tolerate a high level of salinity (they’re also drought-resistant and heat-tolerant). As Joan explains it, at first she just started removing shoots from the existing trees and sticking them in the ground around the ranch. But after networking with experienced date farmers, she decided to plant a larger date orchard. The family cleared a spot of land, did a formal planting (which included trees acquired from others, so as to get fruit sooner — the shoots take about five to seven years to bear fruit), and, as she says, “The rest is history.” The family has about four acres planted now.
As for how to eat Joan’s magical dates — she has her favorite methods, and also works with seasoned recipe developers to create new ways to use them, as you’ll see in the savory recipes below. But Joan’s absolute top three favorite ways to eat dates? Stuffed. Try good quality nut butter (Joan recommends those from Big Spoon Roasters, especially the lemon coconut and the carrot cake) with a sprinkle of salt; or a good creamy blue, like a cambozola (Joan recommends a sprinkle of Lays potato chips on top, but, she says, “I can’t get anyone to buy in”); or a spoonful of vanilla ice cream (take out the pit, pipe in the ice cream, let it set in the freezer, store in a Ziploc).
You can get Rancho Meladuco dates here (they also offer a subscription option, which I’m considering). To keep in mind: “Dates are considered a dry fruit, not a dried fruit,” Joan says. “And that’s an important distinction — you’re not taking an apple and