Here’s how Food & Wine magazine once began a story about Mary Lynn Van Wyck and her son, Bronson: “What do Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and socialite Marina Rust Connor all have in common with a tractor repairman from the Mississippi Delta? The answer is Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a mother-son event-planning team with big-name clients and surprisingly deep country roots.
“Bronson Van Wyck … is based in Manhattan, where he stands out on the social scene thanks to his party-planning prowess, old-fashioned manners and iconoclastic dress sense. … But the company’s headquarters and spiritual home is not Van Wyck’s Chinatown studio, it’s Arrowhead Farms in Tuckerman, Ark. (population 1,757), where he grew up and where his mother and business partner, Mary Lynn Van Wyck, still lives.
“Whether the event is a presidential inauguration or a Maine clambake, most of the duo’s extravagant props — 25-foot bamboo branches or moon-size disco balls — originate in Tuckerman. ‘Bronson dreams up these ideas, and I think, how are we going to implement this?’ says Mary Lynn. ‘I’ll end up taking the drawings of a disco ball to the welder who usually repairs tractors, and he’ll make it.’ But, she adds with her Southern lilt, ‘that makes life fun.”’
The story noted that Mary Lynn encouraged her son to become a party planner. After graduating from Yale, he had been a set dresser for the movie “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and an aide to Pamela Harriman at the American embassy in Paris. But a later movie production job in Los Angeles wasn’t the right fit.
Of the father, also named Bronson Van Wyck, the story said: “A direct descendant of the man for whom the expressway in New York City is named, he’s a product of Greenwich, Conn., and Harvard Business School. He had little intention of becoming a farmer ‘until,’ he says, ‘I married a girl from Arkansas.’ The type of ‘girl from Arkansas,’ that is, who decided to transport an abandoned warehouse brick by brick from Louisiana to serve as the main house on her farm. Despite some raised eyebrows back East, Bronson pere took over the day-to-day running of Mary Lynn’s family business, Arrowhead Farms, which grows rice, pecans and soybeans, among other crops. Today he also owns citrus groves in Florida and vineyards in the Lodi/Woodbridge area south of Sacramento, Calif.”
The story pointed out that Mary Lynn’s wedding to Bronson made Town & Country magazine’s list of the 100 best weddings of the 20th century.
All of this connects us to yesterday’s blog post. The Van Wyck family put on a dinner at Tuckerman for the magazine to feature. It was noted that “most of the evening’s recipes — light, fluffy rolls (from Mary Lynn’s Auntie Buck), creamy corn pudding and spice cake with a rich caramel frosting — were culled from a cookbook written by Mary Lynn’s grandmother, Ruby Thomas, who was the presiding culinary spirit at the Red Apple Inn, an Arkansas dining institution on nearby Eden Isle.”
You can go to amazon.com and still find copies of the Ruby Thomas book “Feasts of Eden: Gracious Country Cooking from the Red Apple Inn.”
The online reviews are good ones.
One review from 2007 says, “Having spent Thanksgiving 2006 at the Red Apple Inn in Arkansas, I have been delighted to find many of the recipes served in their dining room are available in this book. I had previously bought several of these from their gift shop. … This is a great book with dependable, authentic Southern cooking recipes.”
A review from last year says, “This book is a beautiful glimpse into the world (and kitchen) of the elegant, timeless lake resort Eden Isle. The recipes are detailed and clear; the commentary transports you to that place — and that place in time. I have made many of the recipes over the years, with great success. Now, I am making the recipes for my parents, as a reminder of their many happy years together at Eden Isle, at a table in the corner of the Red Apple Inn.”
In an interview last year for the Three Rivers zoned edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Red Apple Inn general manager David Smith said the Ruby Thomas book is still sold in the gift shop there.
“We’ve never even attempted writing another book,” he said. “Many Arkansans have rich memories of dining here. My parents and my wife’s parents, all from Little Rock, would drive here to celebrate special occasions because it was one of the few places where folks could find fine dining.”
The dinner menu at the Red Apple Inn still offers everything from prime rib to huge prawns to sesame-crusted tuna. And, yes, that 16th-century wrought-iron gate forged by Spanish craftsmen, which was obtained by Herbert and Ruby Thomas decades ago, is still there.
“A lot of people come in and take pictures of it,” Smith told the Three Rivers edition.
He also noted that the restaurant attempts to use local suppliers as much as possible, including one lady who once worked at the Red Apple Inn before starting a berry farm that, according to Smith, has the “plumpest blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.”
The Red Apple Inn also offers its own line of gourmet candy that has been made since 1997 and is now sold in 20 states. According to the Red Apple website, the toffee “is made in small batches using the finest all-natural ingredients, pure creamery butter, nuts from Oregon, Texas and California, premium imported single-bean varietal chocolate and no preservatives.”
Thank goodness for the rescue provided by Heber Springs entrepreneurs Patti and Dick Upton after Melvyn Bell had allowed the Red Apple Inn to fall into disrepair.
Patti Upton began her company, Aromatique, in 1982 when she mixed items native to Arkansas such as acorns, pine cones, sweetgum balls and hickory nuts and then covered them with spices and oils. She called it The Spirit of Christmas and put it on sale in a friend’s gift shop.
You likely know the rest of the story.
Annette Green, the president emeritus of the Fragrance Foundation of New York, has called Patti Upton “one of our industry’s most creative visionaries. Her trailblazing concepts set the stage for the revolution in the enjoyment and appreciation of fragrance in the home, which is driving the public’s interest in fragrance.”
The Uptons, it seems, are worthy successors to the founding Thomas family.
As far as the amazing Thomas family, Mary Lynn Van Wyck’s father, Jim Thomas, was quite the entrepreneur. When he died at age 79 in 2003, the Democrat-Gazette called him “an agricultural tycoon” and noted that he had stocked his Frostyaire warehouses with “frozen chickens, sandwich meats and vegetables. The savvy businessman also grew kale, collards and mustard greens on his farm in Tuckerman, sold the crops to Birds Eye Frozen Foods and then stored the vegetables in his warehouse. Before Frostyaire, Thomas developed land for row-crop farming, using bulldozers to clear the land of trees. … Thomas grew and exported rice to Russia and Iran.”
His son, Steve Thomas, said at the time: “He would do something for a while, then go on to the next thing. He had a visionary sense.”
After buying horses for Mary Lynn to ride, Jim Thomas later began breeding and racing thoroughbreds. He built his own stables at Tuckerman and bought a training center in Kentucky.
The obituary said, “Thomas, a master at human relations, could talk shop with Wall Street businessmen just as easily as he could chat with a person with a sixth-grade education.”
“Quietly, he pioneered so many things,” Steve Thomas said. “He won’t go down as the most known person in Arkansas, but he is the most creative person I’ve ever been exposed to in my life.”
Herbert Thomas Sr., Ruby Thomas, Jim Thomas, Mary Lynn Van Wyck, Bronson Van Wyck, Patti Upton — all examples of the impressive crop of entrepreneurs this small state has produced.