Coming from the plaza, I enter Manzanita Market through the front door. I’m waved into the kitchen. Jen Hart stands above a table of prep food—bright yellow turmeric sauce, fresh bread, sliced pickles. Behind her, brightly colored teapots and cups dry on the rack, large pots simmer promisingly on the stove to her left. Encircling us are dozens of industrial-size mason jars where vegetables bob in saffron, umber, and violet baths. It’s a familiar sight: a cornucopia of food with a woman at the center of it.
She looks tired. She says she’s tired. Looking around at Manzanita Market, seeing how beautiful and inviting it is, how full of good things—I believe her. And it occurs to me for the first time; how did this mother of three and proprietress of the Love Apple wind up opening this place? How did she get here? “It’s just in me,” she says, looking indeed as if some Dantean creature had prodded her all the way here. “I’m trying to slow down and spend more time appreciating my family,” she says as she stares intently at her daughter Sophia who languidly surveys the aioli from a cloud of wavy blonde hair, listening.
Manzanita Market has only been open three months, and it’s still developing its identity. Like a parent who waits to name their child until it begins to show its personality, Jen has held off on cementing the menu, hours, and selection of goods. With a team of local ladies she is working on developing a breakfast menu that will include smoothies packed with super-herbs, porridges full of brain food, energy bars and health elixirs. She is dreaming up an afternoon teatime, somewhere to take your kids after school. She has even hosted a series of nighttime dinner parties where the lights from inside Manzanita Market glow broadly through the steamy windows that light up the cold and quiet plaza.
Through the fluctuations of Manzanita as it learns the tastes of its community, the backbone of the place undoubtedly remains providing healthy food for local folk. A Taoseña, born and raised, Jen remembers a childhood spent playing on the Plaza where parents would call the payphone to summon their brood home for dinner. Open from 10-4 and located its northeast corner, Jen hopes Manzanita Market will contribute to rejuvenating the Plaza as a hub for locals, and not just a resting spot for tourists.
Midway through the interview Jen pauses to look up herbs to help her server with moon-time pains: “Lemon balm, raspberry leaf and nettle,” she hollers to the front. Couched in a comfortable wooden chair, watching Jen make sandwiches and break to talk about life, it’s easy to feel like I’m in my mother’s kitchen.
Inspired by Weston Price and Paul Pitchford, Jen has organized the shop around providing a casual place to buy food that boosts your immune system and supports longevity. Or as Jen says in her simple, unpretentious way, “food that makes you feel good.” And as I look around the kitchen, I realize that not only is there no grain of white sugar or flour in sight, but that Jen is stocking an all-organic kitchen with local dairy, veggies, meat, and bread. “People who come over to our house often say we have nothing to eat,” Jen comments, “but it’s because we make everything. When you make your own food what do you have? You have spices, grains and greens.” This summer Jen looks forward to offering a wide array of organic cheeses in her dairy case.
As we talk, Jen is quick to highlight the hands of others in creating the shop, breaking down the image I have of her as a one-woman dynasty. Each item in the shop reveals another specialist, many of them women, all of them local. The shelves bursts with local productivity: health elixirs, tea blends, granola, honey, even authors.
Jen Hart isn’t an automaton of success. She gets mad at her kids, she can’t put down a good book, and if Stevie Nicks starts singing Landslide you might see her cry. But she’s kind, magical if you watch closely, and when I talk to her I’m reminded of what a college professor once said. My professor defined genius as the ability to harness the spirit of the times, the inspiration of those around you and the wisdom of those who came before you. And by that definition, Jen Hart is a genius.