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23 august 2011

I didn't grow up eating dates, in any form. The standard dried-fruit-filled biscuit of my childhood was the Fig Newton™; though Fig Newtons have delicious date-based analogues, you still can't get them in this country outside of halal markets. Fresh dates were completely alien things, and dried dates, though they'd occasionally surface in the more exotic reaches of supermarkets, were shriveled items resembling cockroaches more than anything else. And growing up in the American Midwest and Northeast, I certainly never saw a date palm.

I really don't remember now when I first ate them: probably it was in the rolled and sugar-dusted form of some kind of Christmas-oriented date confection. In Dates: A Global History, Nawal Nasrallah emphasizes that the date palm has been the staple tree of Mideast desert cultures for millennia. Dates are still on the periphery of my foodways, though. I keep a few around to chop into miscellaneous dishes, whether called for by recipe or as a substitute for raisins.

In hot, arid environments, dates are not a substitute for anything. Nasrallah notes that the date is an all-purpose food, and its tree vital to traditional desert technologies. Dates are eaten as crisp "springtime" fruit, soft mature fruit, or near-indestructible dried natural candy. They can be palpated into pastry, ground into meal, expressed into syrup; superannuated date palms yield sugar and wine. And incidentally, they are delicious. I had to stop writing just now and go snarf up some of my cooking dates. These little guys have seen far better days, but they offer at least a gustatory echo of the (reportedly) sublime Arabian khalasa date, as described by Eric Hansen: "flavors of honey, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and caramel [. . .] infused with a rich note of taffy" (quoted in Nasrallah, 19).

Nasrallah argues for a larger geopolitical role for the date. In a lot of the places that the U.S. military has littered with its bounty lately, the date would have been a better ingredient than some All-American foodstuffs.

An Afghan villager was puzzled by the peanut butter included in the American food aid packages dropped on them. He tasted it but did not like it, so he gave it to his donkey. The donkey refused to eat it. (119-120)

Nasrallah, Nawal. Dates: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.