Date Gardens

When I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Library School in, I had an assignment to select books that would be appropriate for a medium-sized public library.  I pored over book reviews, making my decisions, watching not only for books for my imaginary library but also for myself.  I found the cookbooks especially interesting.  Gerald and I had been married only a few months and I had never learned to cook.  Now I was 1200 miles away from my New York home and my mother and struggling with this new life.   One cookbook in particular caught my eye.  It was Dolores Casella’s A World of Baking. A whole world in one book!  All the recipes and instructions that would make me the equal of the yeast-baking Midwestern graduate-student wives we met.  I bought a copy and after my Library School assignments were done at night, I read it devotedly.  I never mastered yeast baking, but I did make some wonderful cakes.  What was most intriguing, and what stayed in my memory more than Casella’s cakes, were her comments about her friends and family. Dolores Casella lived in California, although she never named the town.  She did talk about being able to grow fruits and vegetables all year round, and from this I thought that she must live in Southern California.  Her brief descriptions put me in mind of a warm, sunny place, and a mother who spent her days harvesting her garden, preserving, canning, and baking for a large and hungry family. Wasn’t that the life that I wanted too?  I wasn’t sure. The story that remained most vividly in my memory over the years started off “Once a year we make the long trip from our home in a valley near the ocean to the hot, bright desert floor of the Coachella Valley and its exotic ‘date gardens.’ We try to make the trip during the month of February for the annual Date Festival in the town of Indio.” She then went on to describe, in the most loving and mouth-watering detail, the various types of dates with their exotic Middle Eastern names.  I had an image of those date gardens in my mind’s eye for years. Someday, I knew, I would see them.

In 1990, Gerald and I had an opportunity to live, temporarily, in San Francisco.  We were there from July to December of that year.  San Francisco was not the world of Dolores Casella, but now I knew she must have been out in the Central Valley, where the acres of irrigated fields produced so much lush fruit.  I told my husband, that if we were still in California in February, I wanted to go to Indio for the Date Festival.  He laughed at me, but by then I knew there were camel races at the festival and I could make allies of my children.  Unfortunately, we had to return to the east coast too early to see the Date Festival, but on our last trip before leaving the state, we went down to Palm Springs, close to the Coachella Valley.  I would make it to Indio!  Our second day in Palm Springs, at my urging, we headed east and south along the desert highways.  We stopped at several date gardens: cool, lonely places with clusters of dates hanging from the dusty palms.  We bought dates; they were luscious. We shared a bowl of date ice cream.  There were no camels, just roadside stands, and none of the romance I had read into Casella’s few words. But it was very satisfactory. I had made it to Indio after all those years. It was the end of the road for my date garden fantasy, or so I thought.

The transition back to the east coast was not easy.  Something about California had captured us and wouldn’t let go.  The skies were bluer, the tensions of everyday life less, the wilderness so much more accessible and spectacular. It left us with an angst about our lives: what we had done, what we had not done. The other day I was at my suburban New Jersey produce market.  For the first time this spring, the out-of-season fruits were from California, not Chile.  California apricots, nectarines and peaches were displayed for shoppers anxious for edible signs of the summer to come.  I took a plastic bag and began sorting through the fruits, picking out the ones to eat today, the ones to put aside to ripen.  Suddenly, Casella’s words came to my mind, “Once a year we make the long trip…”  My eyes filled with tears.  We too had made a long trip that started in the stacks of a Minnesota library years ago. And someday, we’ll see the camels race too.

Rosalind Reisner, April, 1991

3 responses to “Date Gardens

  1. Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

  2. Delores Casella and her family were neighbors of mine in the 60s and early 70s in the beautiful city of Simi Valley, California. I have remained friends with Delores’ youngest child, Teresa. Unfortunately, Delores is not in good health at this time.

  3. Thank you for the post! I am reading Dolores Casella’s A World of Baking and I am so happy to have been able to learn more about Casella. I really appreciate Miki,s comment, too, about where Dolores was from. When I read great, older cookbooks, I wonder about the authors, illustrators, and publishers. Sometimes an Internet search reveals details and it just makes the whole experience of reading a cookbook richer.

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