Sticky at Christmas, packed in serried rows around a plastic twig in an oval-ended paper-wrapped box with a picture of a camel train; dates in childhood were exotic. The mystery words Deglet Noor were as sweet to roll around the mouth as the fibrous fruit. But we learn from Dates – A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah (Reaktion Books, £9.99) that they are a staple food, comparable to wheat, potatoes and rice. The Edible Series focuses on one foodstuff per book. The result can be like an answer in a Chinese exam where everything known is written down, here in a prose style reminiscent of Wikipedia.
Fortunately, pictures are a diverting element and the pleasingly graphic date palm, illustrative of the Tree of Life, as well as representing a child’s first stab at drawing a tree and providing a symbol for religious paintings, coins and bank notes, proves a rich source.
The sexual habits of dates offer an encouragingly feminist byway. Trees fall in love and mate promiscuously, but the male contribution, beyond donating sperm, has been rendered through cultivation, almost an irrelevance. In Coachella Valley, California, ‘homeland of the immigrant date’, a show entitled The Romance and Sex Life of the Date can be viewed for free.
It is soothing to read about Israel and Palestine, Baghdad and Basra simply in the context of date production. Dates are good for us. Anti-carcinogenic, age-defying, aphrodisiac, the consumption of at least seven a day of ‘the cake of the poor’ is a wise precaution — as endorsed by the Prophet.