Ramadan, Dates, and the Evolution of a “Foreign” Food

updated May 10, 2021
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This week marks the last couple days of Ramadan, a holy month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. During this time, no food is more important to the iftar table than dates — the sweet fruit is customarily used to break the Ramadan fast. The 1,400-year-old tradition is linked to the Prophet Muhammad, who broke his fast with a date first and then water. He is reported to have said, “People in a house without dates are in a state of hunger.”  

Once considered an exotic fruit, dates have become more well-known in America in recent years, thanks to the popularity of plant-based eating. In elementary school, I remember explaining the concept of breaking fast with dates to quizzical looks from my peers. The only dates they knew of referred to a calendar or something romantic. Today, they’re a go-to natural alternative for sweetening smoothies and baked goods. 

There’s an obvious connection between dates and Islam. Both share an origin story evocative of desert oases, dotted with camels, in the Middle East. They’re also both thought of as fairly recent additions to American life, despite the fact that both dates and Muslims have significant history in America. 

Ramadan has been celebrated in America for hundreds of years, first observed by enslaved African Muslims. Thomas Jefferson hosted the first White House iftar in 1805 to receive the Tunisian ambassador. (The next time the holiday would be acknowledged in the White House would be during the Clinton administration.) As for dates? They’ve been cultivated on American soil for a century. 

As far as foreignness goes, both dates and Muslims have been the object of exoticized curiosity. The first “mosque” in America — a replica display of an Egyptian mosque premiered at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 — was a literal spectacle. Muslim performers were asked by fair organizers to don “native costumes” and perform the five prayers as observers looked on. 

A few years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent “agricultural explorers” to search the globe for new crops to bring back to American soil. Inspired by popular tales of Aladdin and Sinbad, they landed in Morocco, Algeria, and Iraq, where they found date palms growing in climates similar to the American Southwest. Offshoots were taken back and planted in Arizona’s Bard Valley and California’s Coachella Valley. 

The date crop took off and became part of the economy and identity of these rural desert towns. The town of Walters, California, was renamed Mecca in 1904 and other towns in Southern California took on names like Oasis and Arabia with streets dubbed Luxor, Baghdad, and Cairo. The towns had North African-style architecture, camel races, Bedouin tents, and orientalist costumes to draw in tourists.

Starting in the 1970s, geopolitical events from the Iran hostage crisis to 9/11 caused public perception of the Middle East and Islam to shift from fantasy to fundamentalism. As a result, date growers moved away from the exotic imagery. In 2015, the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association said they had poured millions of dollars into creating the “Nature’s Delight” brand name to market the fruit as a superfood instead. Their efforts paid off: In recent years, dates have become a key player in healthy snack bars, energy balls, and raw vegan brownies, coveted for their natural sweetness and fudgy texture. And even though dates aren’t as closely linked with Ramadan and Muslims the way they once were, American date growers count on the annual Ramadan bump in sales — as much as 57 percent this year.

Once considered foreign and representative of an entire community (however caricatured), dates seem to have largely shed those connotations to great commercial success. “Foreign” foods that represent a particular community, like bone broth and turmeric, often find a wider audience once they’re stripped of their cultural context and rebranded as a new superfood.

As the day’s fast comes to a close, I reach for a date first, the same way fasting Muslims have done in this country for generations. At what point will our deep roots in this country finally get acknowledged?