Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Date update: Situation reported shaky

If youíve taken I-10 from Phoenix to L.A., you know that it is not one of the nationís scenic drives. For seemingly endless stretches of this desert highway, thereís just not a lot to see.

As for what there is to see, well, letís just say that Blythe wonít be winning any beauty contests.

But appearances arenít everything. Two weeks ago, on route from the Kyrene Corridor to Riverside, Pasadena and Paso Robles with a friend, I had the pleasure of introducing her, in Indio, Calif., to one of the nationís great culinary treasures: the date shake.

I donít remember exactly how I learned there were date shakes in Indio, a town just off the Interstate. Indio is close to Palm Springs but has none of the latterís cachet; itís a place where youíd think to stop for gas, but probably nothing else.

Maybe I read about the date shakes in a Deborah Madison cookbook. Maybe my mother-in-law, a California native, was the one who remembered them.

In any event, one day we exited the freeway at Indio, and drove around asking at gas stations and farmstands until we found Shields Date Garden.

Shields Date Garden has been in business since 1924, and the decor is straight from the í50s. Itís a fabulous place.

At a low white counter, you can sit on a lower stool and order a frosty date shake (date paste, milk and ice cream) mixed to order. You sip it through a red straw thatís hollowed at one end to make a spoon--whenís the last time you used one of those?

At the back of the store is a theater that, in season, plays The Romance and Sex Life of the Date in continuous loop. This being the blistering summer, the theater was closed on my latest visit, but there was a small TV rigged up to show the tape, and my friend and I sat through all 15 minutes of it.

Fascinating stuff.

I grew up in New Mexico, where (as in most of the country) ďdatesĒ were the small, hard, slightly nauseating kibbles in my grandparentsí breakfast cereals.

I never knew what a real, fresh date was like until I first moved to Arizona, about four years ago. To tell you the truth, Iím not even sure I knew that they grew on palms.

Now Iím passionate about fresh dates, which--sweet and sticky and slightly chewy--are as enchanting as any candy.

Take advantage of living in date country and eat fresh dates plain as a snack. Split them, pit them and stuff them with walnuts or almonds, or (my favorite) with creamy mascarpone cheese flavored with honey and orange flower water.

Take a cue from Shields (which distributes a free cookbook) and make bacon-broiled dates: pitted Medjool dates wrapped with a slice of uncooked bacon and broiled until done.

Or, of course, make date shakes.

Shields makes its shakes with its own brand of ďdate crystals,Ē dehydrated date chips that can be reconstituted with water into a scoopable paste.

Theyíre quite good and you can order them by calling Shields at (800) 414-2555.

You can also make date shakes with fresh dates pitted and pureed into a paste.

Use ľ cup of date paste per shake. Mix with half a cup of vanilla ice cream and one cup of very cold milk until thick and frosty.

And stop for a treat the next time you drive to L.A. (take the Jefferson exit, turn south, and drive to the intersection of Jefferson and Highway 111).

A cold date shake improves the drive enormously--but then, whoís to say that there arenít other hidden treasures along the way?

Let me know if you find any.