A package is wedged between my front and screen doors. It’s not hard to figure out where it came from once I spot its return address – South Coast Plaza’s logo is essentially the venue name framed inside a black square. I deduce the package is an anniversary-inspired gift from the internationally famous Orange County shopping center, thanking me for covering the venue and its tenants for 13 of its 50 years of existence. I smile as I scoop up the box and walk briskly to my kitchen table. Slicing open the top exposes shredded papers and more intrigue. I sift through the ribbons, ignoring the package’s accompanying note and shopping center magazine. I hoist my findings, already assuming it’s something fancy.
It’s a bag of beans. Lima beans, to be exact. It’s different than my expectations.
I go back and look at the previously shunned note and flip through the magazine, hoping they will explain my odd receipt of legumes. The supplements quickly inform that South Coast Plaza was founded by the Segerstrom family, a hard-working brood that initially made their mark on Orange County by growing lima beans on their eponymous 2,000-acre ranch. As the county transformed from sleepy farmland into concrete suburbia, the Segerstroms shifted gears, acquired land, and built a sprawling shopping center, one that eventually would lure luxury brands and their wealthy devotees from around the world. A tiny piece of that farmland still exists about a mile down the road from the plaza, proudly defying the surrounding modern progress. The beans in the small grainy sack come from that plot.
The beans instantly shift from strange to cool, because the story of the family that grew them effortlessly parallels Orange County history. In the days before Disneyland, farmland stretched over its flattish central basin, with the occasional military training ground interspersed between the massive plots of beanstalks, orange groves, and strawberry fields. Then Walt Disney brought the world to Anaheim, soldiers returned to the area in search of suburban life, and the fields gave way to bedroom communities and commercial developments. Big business and subsequent affluence followed. The Segerstrom clan rode the wave of this transformation like surfing legends, segueing from successful bean farmers to locally iconic real estate moguls. Fifty years later, their South Coast Plaza remains a symbol of modern Orange County. The sack of beans symbolizes the past for both family and region, but it also represents the fuel that helped make the present possible.
The note provides knowledge. As G.I. Joe once told my generation, knowing is half the battle. The other half is trying to figure out what to do with them. This remains a mystery for one week, then two, then three, until they recess into the back of our pantry, where their existence gets shrouded by a shape-shifting clump of rice-filled bags, soup cans, and a marshmallow bag of mysterious age. I forget about them. Fortunately, as 2017 and South Coast Plaza’s 50th anniversary draws to a close, my wife does not.
A heavenly aroma fills our kitchen the afternoon of New Year’s Day. The crock pot is on our kitchen corner, working its magic in a space where plates formerly filled with homemade shrimp and grits were stacked earlier that morning, a reminder of the prior evening’s clock-watching shenanigans. The pot’s filled with seasoned hamhocks and those forgotten beans; not quite the hoppin’ john recipe that New Year’s folklore demands, but close enough. I peak under the lid. They are off-white and massively plump, almost to the point of being mutant. I dare not give into my urge to poke at one, even as their look makes such an action inviting. Their texture is best experienced with my mouth, not my digits.
The ham and beans are not ready for consumption when it’s time to transport it to our friends’ house, where an early evening of cards and wine await. Their kitchen will have to pick up the save, which it does in about an hour’s time. I secure a heaping bowl of goodness. The beans burst into a creamy spill of buttery excellence, producing a silky base that plays nice with the ham’s smoky essence – not to mention the red blend that’s poured. In an instant, I understand why the Segerstrom family amassed an empire on the backs of these legumes.
I’ve been lucky enough to receive dozens of media gifts over the years. None of them were more unorthodox than that sack of Segerstrom family lima beans. Few of them, though, have been as satisfying.