Worcester Living: A date with destiny | #elderly | #seniors | #execrise
A native New Englander, I am used to the cold and snowy winter, but around about the end of January I begin to dream of palm trees swaying in a balmy breeze. And if there’s one food that conjures up images of swaying palms, camel caravans and fragrant spices, it is the date.
Soft, sensuous, and seriously sweet, the fruit of the date palm is nature’s gift to humanity. Often referred to as “the King of Dates” due to its enormous size and decadent taste, the Medjool variety of the fruit was once reserved for Moroccan royalty. Luckily, it’s now available widely to the non-royals among us, as growers around the world produce more than eight and a half million metric tons of various cultivars annually. And, while most dates do still come from the Middle East and North Africa, we can easily purchase domestically grown ones.
The fruit we know as the date is actually a berry. And its source, the date palm, is believed to have originated in the Middle East somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 years ago, in the area between the Persian Gulf and the Nile River. It is thought to be the oldest cultivated fruit in the world.
The date palm is one of the trees specifically mentioned in the Bible. We first encounter it in the narrative describing the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. Having just experienced the bitter waters at Marah, the exiles were thrilled to find fresh water at the wooded, freshwater oasis at Elim. “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they encamped beside the water. (Exodus 15:27)
Wanderers in the desert knew that if they came to an oasis on which palms grew they would find water, that most precious of life-saving commodities. In fact, oasis agriculture seems to have developed mainly during the early Bronze Age, from around 3000 BCE, which corroborates the account in the biblical narrative.
But date palms didn’t just suddenly appear on oases. They were often planted precisely because a supply of water would be ensured. Dense, thick forests grew, helping towns like Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, to become major population centers.
The date palm was such an important source of food, shelter and shade that it’s not hard to understand why it was also an important feature in the arts and rituals of early cultures, from coins to pyramids. Egyptian burial tombs contained not only depictions of the palm, but actual trees. The Romans rewarded victorious athletes and celebrated military successes with palm branches. Early Christians used the palm branch on Palm Sunday, celebrating Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. And the Hindu festival of Jagganath Puri used palm trees as decoration on parade carts.
Greek mythology connects the date palm to the phoenix who nested at the top of a date palm. After 500 years, the story goes, the bird caught fire only to be reborn from its own ashes. Some have connected that legend with one that says that the date palm would also die and come back to life along with the famous bird.
When the Romans captured Jerusalem, the Emperor Vespasian ordered the minting of a bronze coin that depicted the Jewish state as a weeping woman sitting under a palm tree. The legend on the coin reads, “Upon the capture of Judaea.”
Followers of Islam make great use of dates during Ramadan, the annual religious ritual that requires a month of abstaining from food and drink from sunup to sundown. Once the sun sets, Muslims traditionally break their fast by eating dates. The fruits are also featured prominently on the menu for the Eid al-Fitr feast that ends Ramadan.
While the ancients might not have known about vitamins and minerals, they did know that they would be refreshed and energized by the delicious fruit. In fact, the date is an excellent source of dietary fiber, Vitamins A and K, antioxidants, iron, potassium, calcium, manganese, copper and magnesium, among other nutrients. In many parts of the world today, the date is still an affordable and important source of nutrition.
Adding to the date’s impressive résumé, some evidence exists that the ancient Judean date was used for fertility, against infections and tumors, and even as an aphrodisiac. So, modern researchers have begun work focused on finding medicinal properties in the berry. Studies have shown that dates contain phytochemicals that may help lower cholesterol and decrease risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. And believe it or not — despite the fruit’s intense sweetness — even diabetes.
Bringing the dates to these shores involved a combination of travel to exotic places, reconnaissance, and even some smuggling. Writer Daniel Stone follows the exploits of David Fairchild, a botanist who in the late 19th century founded the Agricultural Explorer program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Explorers were charged with bringing to America fruits and vegetables that could flourish here and help to grow the economy. Explorers returned from Iraq, Algeria and Egypt with Deglet Noor date offshoots and, after attempting — and failing — cultivation in several areas, found that California’s Coachella Valley was the ideal place with the perfect climate for the crop. The date industry was born with the Deglet Noor variety, followed a decade later by the Medjool. And it’s lucky the Explorers did bring the Medjool over here because the “King of Dates” crop in Morocco was being dethroned by disease.
Getting the plants here was only half the battle. Cultivating dates is a laborious process. As with other fruits, planting date seeds does not produce trees identical to the ones from which the seeds come. So, Fairchild and others brought back large offshoots cut from the bottom of the palms that would produce trees identical to the parent tree.
As if the finding, cutting, transporting and planting isn’t enough, date palms require hand pollination. Workers called palmeros have to climb up into 50-foot or higher female date palms, working their way around the branches while spraying pollen gathered from nearby male trees.
But once they got here, the fruit’s popularity surged, and the United States responded in true Hollywood form. Inspired by movies like “The Queen of Sheba,” “Cleopatra” and Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik,” towns in California turned themselves into date theme parks, complete with new names such as Mecca and Oasis. Costumed workers welcomed visitors and led them on camel rides. And when King Tut’s tomb was discovered with preserved dates inside (presumably to feed Tut in the afterworld) things got even crazier.
Remember that Greek myth about the Phoenix? The Judaean date palm was thought to have become extinct 2,000 years ago but has now been reborn. In the 1960s, archaeologists at several sites discovered ancient seeds that had been preserved in the desert heat. But not until 2005 did scientists actually plant one. Named Methuselah, it sprouted, becoming the oldest seed ever grown into a living plant. Now 16 years later, it has matured into a healthy tree that has pollinated other trees grown from excavated seeds, all of which were named for biblical characters. Out of the ashes, indeed.
The Methuselah and Adam dates, found at the desert fortress Masada, are very Arabian, according to experts, while the female Hannah appears to be genetically related to a species that grew in what is today called Iraq. This makes sense, because the Judaean captives in Babylon worked on date plantations and probably brought seeds back with them when, after conquering the Babylonian Empire, Persia’s King Cyrus allowed them to return to their homeland.
In keeping with the environmental mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle,” even the date pits are used, for everything from animal feed to cosmetics and soap. In fact, I recently received a gift from a friend in Oman: a packet of beverage “coffee” made from ground date pits and mixed with cardamom and saffron. Popular in many Arab countries, brewers laud the drink for being without the acidity, bitterness or jitters associated with its caffeinated cousin.
What may be the eeriest story about the date takes place during World War I, when the amateur spy group NILI helped the British to defeat the Ottoman Empire. While these agents were able to get valuable intelligence to the British, their work was very dangerous, and most of the members of the NILI core group were captured or killed by the Turks. Among them was Avshalom Feinberg. For his trek through the desert, Feinberg carried with him dates for nutrition and energy. Unfortunately, he was shot while trying to cross through Sinai to Egypt.
Decades after his death, an elderly Bedouin led an officer to a spot known locally as Kabir Yehudi (the Jew’s grave), where a single date palm grew. They dug under the tree and exhumed skeletal remains later identified as belonging to Feinberg. The tree had sprouted from one of the date seeds that had been in his pocket.
Moroccan Braised Chicken With Dates
For out-of-hand eating or as a simple dessert, nothing can beat a fresh date, a luscious caramel-and-honey flavored delight. But the fruit’s sweetness also goes well with all manner of savory dishes, from meat to cheese. It is the perfect addition to this recipe that calls for other traditional North African ingredients, such as almonds, ginger, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon that bring both sweetness and texture to the dish.
A 4-pound cut-up chicken
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
10 large garlic cloves, peeled
3 cinnamon sticks
1½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups chicken broth
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
12 dates, pitted and halved, preferably Medjool
¼ cup almonds, toasted and chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt, pepper and flour.
Heat olive oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat.
Add half the chicken to pot and cook until browned on all sides, turning occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Transfer chicken to baking sheet or platter and repeat with the remaining chicken.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pot and discard.
Reduce heat to medium.
Add garlic cloves to the pot and sauté until golden, about 6 minutes.
Add cinnamon sticks, ginger, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne.
Stir until fragrant for about 1 minute.
Increase heat to high and add broth and 3 tablespoons of the lemon juice.
Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until the garlic begin to soften, about 15 minutes.
Place chicken on top of garlic in the pot and bring to boil over medium heat.
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for about 25 minutes.
Transfer chicken and garlic to platter; cover with foil. Place in cold oven and set to 250 degrees to keep warm while sauce is cooking.
Boil juices in pot until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in dates and the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice.
Reduce heat and simmer gently until dates are heated through, about 2 minutes.
Pour sauce and dates over chicken. Sprinkle with almonds and parsley and serve on a bed of couscous.