Date Pie and the Question of Ephemera
e·phem·er·a əˈfem(ə)rə/ , noun
things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.
items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.
Mecca, Thermal, La Quinta, Thousand Palms. Date farms and shops have dotted the desert highways in and around the Coachella Valley since the early 1920's, the towns' names indicating the extremes of this environment (survival, beauty, intense heat, and its particular crop - date palms). I particularly love the name La Quinta - meaning "The Fifth" - the fifth what? By some accounts, it used to mean a stop along the way after a long journey. So, these dates, these towns, became intermittent oases of welcome and nourishment in what had been a huge, largely uninhabitable stretch of the Coachella Valley.
Dates too are a staple of various Middle Eastern countries whose climates echo our own deserts' intensity. These sweet nuggets have found their way into multiple home cooks' repertoires including my stepmom Margie's Date Pie. Her recipe stands out to me as one that was far removed from the extremes of its origin. Instead, it was a well loved Thanksgiving alternative to pumpkin pie. Less sweet, more dense in texture, with an incredibly complex set of flavors as nearly all of its essence is extracted from this sturdy little miracle fruit. It became one of the most anticipated winter desserts, usually served after a family camping trip to Joshua Tree.
Now the question of ephemera. Patric Kuh, restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine, described drawing inspiration for his recent publication, Finding the Flavors We Lost, from the Huntington Library's recently acquired Anne Cranston American Regional and Charitable Cookbook Collection. (Yes there is such a collection-4,400 items. Be still my beating heart!). While the various ingredients, tastes, food making techniques have changed- the Jello mold dulled by sour cream or marshmallow fluff and speckled with canned fruit as a comical example-the Cranston collection holds more tenacious truths. In a recent lecture at the Huntington, Kuh described Ms. Cranston's capacity to find value in rapidly written directions on the backs of bank statements, envelopes, and scribbled-over pages of books, as "a testament to what we don't throw away." And so, are these many scraps and formerly loved flavors ephemera, or part of a long and sometimes delicious cultural history?
" I think of recipes in a different way...they are signs of curiosity, sales tools, ways of belonging, a means of organization...great historical markers..."
I so prefer the poetry of his definition. Although the individual card, envelope, and plastic comb bound book, often are considered ephemera, their impact on the meaning of these larger ideas of culture remain. For your poetic and eating enjoyment, alongside the Date Pie Recipe, aka way of belonging, sales tool, and historical marker, I include the Ma'amoul Cookie, aka great historical marker, a way of belonging and for me a sign of curiosity-a Lebanese date filled dessert eaten at Ramadan through Eid, and at Easter. Time to try something new, Easter (April 16) and Ramadan (May 26-June 25) are upon us!