I’m a date snob. Only the ripest, juiciest, sweetest dates for me. Not the Deglet Noor, or Ajwa, or Sukkari. No baking dates and definitely not the pitted ones. Give me Medjool dates, especially the ones that are fresh, that don’t have crystallized sugar crusting on the skin.
They have to melt in my mouth like butter. They must come straight from the fertile soil of the Middle East, or from the hipster organic locally sourced valleys in California.
I never realized I had an affinity for this particular date until a few years ago. That’s when I noticed whenever people served dates to break our fast during Ramadan, I always sought out a specific type. Even when I was buying dates for my own home to serve guests, I went for the same texture and taste over and over again. The crown jewel: the Medjool.
Did you know that Medjool dates with a cup of milk is like heaven for your taste buds? Blend them in a smoothie, bake them in a cake, but for the best experience, eat them raw. I take the date and pull it apart eating the first half and then the second. Sometimes I’ll even pop the whole thing in my mouth and eat around the pit until I get every last morsel off.
Dates have made a comeback, or I should say, have suddenly been “discovered” over the last several years. Now they’re touted for their antioxidants and potential health benefits. But this wasn’t always the case. This amazing “superfood” used to be seen as something foreign and odd. If someone had heard of dates, it was usually in the context of something their Midwestern grandma baked into an inedible fruit cake.
When I was around 11 years old, my family and I lived in a large colonial house in Norfolk, Virginia. My father was teaching at Old Dominion University. It was my first experience being around people who had never had a date. Until then, I’d just assumed everybody knew and ate the same things I did.
My parents were quite the health nuts. We didn’t have sugary treats or processed foods in our home. It was carob peanut butter cups and, if we were lucky, blue corn chips. And we had dates all year round, not just at Ramadan. When we got together with the neighborhood kids to ride our bikes up and down New York Avenue, I would watch enviously when they’d go indoors for Kool-Aid or Fudge Pops.
Sometimes, the neighborhood kids would come over and sit with us on our sweeping and shady front porch for some respite from the hot and humid sticky Virginia summers. One day my older brother and I went inside to get some snacks. We didn’t have Cheetos or Doritos or Oreos or Nilla Wafers. What should we share? We decided to get some dates and cups of cold milk. We were excited to pass them around.
The kids were shocked.
“What is that? It looks like a turd.”
I was taken aback. They thought this precious dried fruit, the king of all dried fruits looked like excrement?
“These are dates, haven’t you ever had any?”
“No, they look scary.”
“You’re missing out!”
“Ok I’ll try it. It’s interesting.”
I resisted the urge to snatch the dates back. To me they were valuable and not something to waste. Particularly in the days before the internet. You couldn’t click on a link and order them instantly.
Over the years, I endured countless jokes by the uninitiated when I’d offer to share my treasure.
“Would you like a date?”
“Oh you want to ‘date’ me? Haha get it? DATE me?”
But most of my Medjool memories are tied to Ramadan. Dates are a big part of Islamic history. They were a predominant crop in Arabia where Islam began, and early Muslims found this nutritionally dense fruit was perfect for keeping energy up after breaking their fast. Now Muslims all around the world break their fasts with dates. After refraining from food and drink (yes, even water) since just before sunrise, a date is a welcome reward when the sun goes down.
When I was growing up, my parents would source dates from health food stores, the only place where they could be found at the time. Sometimes visitors from overseas would bring us a box of specialty dates from a family farm in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Now, they’re available at your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I’ve even seen them at Costco.
For iftar, the Ramadan break-fast meal, dates are incorporated into the menu in many ways. In the Middle East, there are date-filled cookies (Ka’ak) that are served with tea in the evenings, or baked by the dozens in time for the Eid celebration (at the end of Ramadan).
But for me, I don’t need fancy preparation. I like my date just the way it is.
Now, as Ramadan arrives, I look forward to breaking my fast with the Medjool dates that I ordered from a family farm in Coachella, California that I learned about from a friend’s Facebook post.
The dates arrived a few days ago, just in time. I know I’ll have to hide them and ration them out over the month or they’ll disappear. But I did sneak one to make sure it passed my taste test.
I have my routine when I break my fast with the majestic Medjool.
First I feel its tender, flaky outside and sticky, plump inside, and I make sure to pull the pit out. As I whisper prayers for peace and love around the world, I take the first bite. I roll the dark sugary flesh around in my mouth and take a sip of milk. It is divine. I think I could live solely on these.
Before I know it: I count one, two, okay fine, I’ll have a third one.