A connection of food and memory

Not only did these dates transport me out of my ordinary childhood, they also grounded me in it

BRATTLEBORO — It is late November, the sky is dark, the air is cold, it smells like snow, and I am in the kitchen thinking about holidays and the complicated comforts of simple food.

When I was a small girl, my relatives from New Jersey would pile into their cars and drive up the newly constructed interstate highways till they reached Vermont Route 14 and then finally our house and its accompanying little grocery store, Coutant's Country Center.

My great-aunt Anne always brought stuffed dates. These were tightly packed in a recycled shallow box with a clear plastic lid that fit down over the cardboard base. Nestled there were row upon row of exotic, dark, thickly fleshed dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in granulated sugar.

How I loved them! I ate too many of them, I confess, fingers sticky and covered with telltale white grains. Each year those dates soothed the anxiety of that holiday gathering, filled with its own particular unspoken difficulties, incomprehensible to me but ever-present. I could sit in a big wing chair in the living room slowly eating dates, and gradually my family would recede. In its place appeared camels and a vision of my 10-year-old self transformed into a mysterious veiled woman surrounded by date palms in a faraway oasis.

My mother was a classic 1950s cook whose repertoire consisted of meatloaf, Duncan Hines cakes, and Miracle Whip. Foreign fruit did not play a part except for some pineapple slices with ham steak and bananas on breakfast cereal. The menu of our Christmas meal was quite traditional and very American.

But those dates elevated me from a girl who ate Jello salad to one whose future might possibly include consommé.

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Dates are definitely not food for a Vermont localvore. They are grown only in places that are hot and arid. A small number are grown in America, but the top date-producing countries are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Five million tons are grown each year.

Dates are perhaps the world's oldest food-producing plant. Biblical tradition designates dates as the food God created to feed Adam and Eve. They were said to be the favorite fruit of Mohammed.

In the culture of the Middle East, the date palm represents fertility, in part because it grows so abundantly under harsh conditions. In the Christian world, date palm fronds are used to commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; thus Palm Sunday. The leaves of the date palm are also used as a lulav in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Clearly an ecumenical fruit.

The date is a drupe or stone fruit, like cherries, almonds, plums, coffee, and olives. It is also dioecious, which means there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plants produce fruit, and if left to pollinate naturally, only about 50 percent of the plants will be female.

So pollination is done by hand, using one male plant to pollinate up to 100 females. The fruit is borne on fronds, which hang down from the trunk of the tree. The dates themselves hang in great clusters from these fronds. Each cluster weighs 20 to 25 pounds and contains about 200 dates. As many as 30 clusters are produced each year by a single tree. There are 1,500 varieties of dates grown around the world, but Medjool dates are very popular, giving high yields of large, sweet fruit.

Dates are 80 percent sugar but contain enough potassium, calcium, and fiber to make them a healthy as well as delicious food. They were first brought to the American continent by Spanish missionaries in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Despite their foreign origin, dates have become completely assimilated into the American kitchen. Besides my great-aunt Anne's masterpiece, there is the classic date bar that seems to appear at every elementary school bake sale.

The rest of the world's kitchens have been more adventurous. Classic poetry at the height of the Persian Empire extolled 360 uses for dates. In India, dates are fried, then soaked in cream and served with a garnish of chopped pistachios. North African cuisine embraces a baked fish stuffed with dates and ginger.

One of my favorite Spanish tapas is dates stuffed with chunks of spicy chorizo or salty Marcona almonds, wrapped in bacon and broiled. Another version has them stuffed with salted peanuts, wrapped in proscuitto, and sautéed in sweet butter. I can attest that these are crisp and hot, with just the right amount of salty crunch to encourage a glass of two of something bubbly.

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But back to the holidays and to me in the wing chair. Not only did those dates transport me out of my ordinary childhood, they also grounded me in it. I could count on great-aunt Anne bringing those dates every year. And every year they were exactly the same, packed in the same little box and rolled in the same sparkly sugar.

I remember great-aunt Anne had a big smile and very crooked teeth. She wasn't a good cook. One year when we traveled to her house for the holidays, she forgot to take the little plastic bag of giblets out of the turkey, and it made an awful smell that went away only after my father took the whole roasting pan out to the garage. We sat down to a dinner of all the “fixings” instead.

But she was proud of her stuffed dates, famous for them, and I know my love of them made her happy. I like to think of her in that big, dark kitchen in New Jersey, sitting at the table with a plate of dates, a plate of walnuts, a plate of sugar. I'm sure it took her quite a while to take the stones out and stuff the walnuts in, then roll them in the sugar and line them up in those boxes that once must have held handkerchiefs or stationery.

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Upon such homely treasures are our memories built. The connection of food and memory is ancient and contemporary and complex. There is the personal memory that connects me to my childhood and that wing chair. There is also the larger collective memory that connects me to all women for whom the preparation of sweets and holiday delicacies is an act of love.

What am I making for the holidays? On the counter I have a bag of Medjool dates from the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I will stuff them like great-aunt Anne would have, as well as make my own contribution of a pie with dates and cocoa and pecans that somehow reminds me of mincemeat. It is a good combination of homey pie crust and exotic filling.

I think it would please the little girl in the wing chair. I hope you like it. I wish you a holiday season filled with good memories.

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