Delilah Snell: co-founder of Dear Handmade Life and chef/owner of Alta Baja Market

When she was fifteen Delilah Snell told her mother she wanted to be a vegetarian.  That declaration grew up into a non-profit Snell would begin in her late twenties, and the Santa Ana farmers’ market.  Around that time Snell learned about bio-plastics, and opened an eco-boutique called, “The Road Less Traveled.” When an acquaintance said he was taking a master class in food preservation, Snell said, “I want to do that.” She did.  As a master food preserver concerned with sustainability and attracted to the handmade, Snell, along with Nicole Stevenson (Sneed’s niece, the same early-40’s age as Snell, more like a sister) have created a crafting megabusiness: six craft fairs a year in three cities, a craftmakers conference, and a podcast, all under the fluttering banner “Dear Handmade Life.”  

 Alta Baja breakfast bowl

Alta Baja breakfast bowl

Snell’s latest project is Alta Baja Market, a Santa Ana cafe honoring the food and culture of the border, both sides.  

An only child raised by a single mother, Snell grew up in Orange County.  Her values have co-piloted her life choices, right there in the passenger seat beside a seemingly natural business acumen.  Relationships and community - the question of how people are doing - cannot be separated out from Snell’s commercial reaches.

In 2008, Snell’s niece, Nicole Stevenson, had been living in San Francisco trying to sell her line of clothing, Random Nicole, at craft fairs.  She hit a bumpy stretch when her boyfriend left her. Snell, who was living in Orange County, said, “Come live with me. I love you.”

Stevenson said, “I hate it there.”

“But you have me.”

Stevenson came, and, working out of a “gar-office,” tried selling her clothing line in Orange County with little luck. One day Snell said, “there’s a parking lot behind my store; let’s start our own craft fair.”  The first day of the Santa Ana Patchwork Show five hundred people and NPR showed up.

When a Ventura, California business person admired Snell’s and Stevenson’s craft fair energy, he invited them to come to Ventura, to consider creating a fair there.  The two women headed to Ventura on the day famously known as “Carmageddon,” when a highway 405 closure caused epic backups. It took the women five hours to make a two hour drive, but as Snell said, it was fine “because we got to hang out.”  By the time the women arrived in Ventura they had designed an entirely new idea, something called “Craftcation,” in which crafters would come to a designated site for 5 days of workshops and networking. When I spoke to Snell in April she had just returned from their third Craftcation.  

Snell and Stevenson’s mission is to apply practical, income-generating skills to the hobbyist’s inner flame. The program for the conference offers equal parts business workshops and how-to demonstrations.  There’s “Think Tank Branding” and there’s “Free Motion Embroidery.” The Dear Handmade Life website provides a solid primer on how to set up a craft table. “Merchandise like it’s a brick and mortar store.” “Incorporate a backdrop.” The Dear Handmade Life podcast is a sampler of business strategies for the Etsy-er.  “How to find your ideal customer.” “The Realities of Passive Income.” - and a cocktail. Snell and Stevenson share a drink, and talk about crafts and business. Welcome, girlfriends.

In many ways Snell’s story symbolizes a feminist shift:  women deciding what they want success to look like, no longer chasing something dictated by a man in a suit.  In Snell’s universe commercial success with all its tedium walks hand in hand with relationships, community, sustainability, all those words that we might tire of hearing but in fact give our life value.

 Breakfast quesadillas

Breakfast quesadillas

Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has written, "Dear Madam President, An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run The World".  In many of her recent interviews, she proposes that it’s time for women to embrace their authenticity, to run for office, to go to work unafraid of showing their full feminine sides, “to nod less and cry more.”  Snell’s been on that path since she told her mother she wanted to be a vegetarian.

When Snell trains the kitchen staff at Alta Baja Market, she tells them to make food they would make for their loved ones. “This place is your home.  You’re feeding your family. Your good friends are coming over. You take that mind frame, and put it on a plate.”

At Alta Baha Snell mixes her own sea salt and spice blends everyday.  She makes a variety of preserved products and sauces for the market, like Marge Sauce, (named after her dog) a sauce of fermented serrano and jalapeño peppers.  (All the dishes in Alta Baha are named for friends or Santa Ana neighborhoods.) She makes preserved lemon spread by packing lemons in salt with red pepper flakes and cumin, and then pureeing the cured citrus with olive oil.  She serves that on toast with poached eggs and micro greens. It’s called “Henniger” after a Santa Ana neighborhood.

Another favorite is “Fiesta Lisa:” toast with Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, Cotija cheese, two poached eggs, a drizzle of hatch harrisa and creamy jalapeño dressing.  

 Alta baja avocado toas

Alta baja avocado toas

Nicie and I interviewed Snell’s husband, LA Times columnist and food critic Gustavo Arellano at Alta Baja Market over breakfast quesadillas, avocado toast, chilaquiles, and New Mexican blue cornbread, a tender lavender-colored square, with honey butter.  Snell says she chose the traditional Pueblo blue corn for her corn bread “because I wanted people to talk about the corn.”  

Every last Sunday in the month is Posole Sunday at Alta Baja Market, with all the accompanying sides, including Marge Sauce.  Santa Ana chefs eat here. If they have to work a twelve hour shift, Snell says, they come here for food that will nourish them.

While Snell’s story is uniquely hers there’s a chorus she shares with other women in 2018:  women defining what their success will look like. Snell’s success looks like a slammed Posole Sunday, and her employee, Leah, saying, “working at Alta Baja Market is just like having a party at my house.  I’m cooking for my friends.”

Snell told me that she is pulling away from Dear Handmade Life, focusing on the Alta Baja Market, but she’ll continue the podcast with Stevenson, “because it means we will still get to hang out!”

Delilah Snell’s “Party on the Toast” Nasturtium Butter

Snell says the beautiful specks of nasturtium flowers through the butter look like confetti; she

wants to see a party on the toast!

Put soft unsalted butter into a food processor with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  Process lightly. Add as many nasturtium flowers as it takes to make it look as if there is confetti in the butter when it is processed together.

Spread on toast.

Snell says this also works well with coconut oil for vegans.  

Eunice Panetta