Sheila Jernigan’s happy place is, well, just about any place. She approaches the world with a rare joie de vivre—a natural exuberance for the great outdoors, an artist’s eye for beauty and an appreciation for good food, wine and coffee. But in her kitchen, Jernigan feels a visceral connection to loved ones. It’s where enticing aromas and the familiar repetition of chopping vegetables and stirring sauces evokes fond memories of times gone by, and where she and husband John now spend quality time together.
“My best memories of cooking as a kid were when we all cooked together in my grandma’s kitchen,” she remembers with a smile. “We were a very large family. It didn’t have to be a big event, we all got together for just any reason. It was always my part to cut up things, whatever they stuck in front of me. I enjoyed it very much. But nobody really had a part, they were jumping around everywhere. It was wonderful chaos.”
Back then, fried chicken was the favorite meal served at family dinners.
“I don’t know how they did it—cooking fried chicken for all the people that would be at our family gatherings—but that was a big thing we would have,” she recalls. “My mom and grandma made the best. It was absolutely the best.”
These days, she tries to keep the menu more on the healthy side—mostly keto-inspired recipes that support the couple’s active lifestyle, with plenty of fresh vegetables and clean proteins. She enjoys experimenting with “the different textures that come together and the different flavors that complement each other.”
“I like to eat, and I like to create,” she explains. “We sometimes will start with a recipe and then we start adding our own things and doing it our own way.”
When their schedules allow, John and Sheila retreat to the woods as often as possible, riding bicycles and running on the Greenway trails. In the kitchen together, she says, they “just jump in and do what needs to be done,” the same way they do in their photography studio.
“Our lives are seamless,” she explains. “I love that about our relationship.”
One of their favorite dishes to prepare is Garlic Chicken, which comes together quickly with colorful fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and a creamy low-carb sauce. However, if sons Jordan and Jeremy are joining them for dinner, Jernigan is likely to serve it with slices of coarse, freshly baked beer bread to soak up the savory sauce.
“John and I are trying to not eat bread, trying to be good,” she says, admitting that the easy, three-ingredient rustic loaf is “delicious” and noting that it’s also a “sentimental thing.” The beer bread was a favorite of her son Joshua, who passed away in January.
“Out of my three boys, he’s the one who loved to cook with me,” she shares. “The beer bread was one of the things we cooked together. He had actually made that not too long before we lost him.”
Jernigan says she baked more often when her sons, now in their 20s, were younger.
“I used to love to bake cookies and stuff like that with them, especially around the holidays,” she recalls. “All of them were included. If it was cookies, all of us would do it together. But Joshua was the main one that took interest in cooking. I think he found his talent and his love for cooking as a young kid.”
After they remodeled their kitchen last year, Jernigan personalized the décor with two of her own paintings—a 4-foot by 4-foot fried egg and an equally sized portrait of a selfie taken with John. But her favorite thing in the heart of their home will always be the loved ones there with her—in person and in spirit.
“I liked cooking with Joshua and I cook with John, and it definitely is more fun when somebody’s doing it with you, doing it together.”
The sauce is the star of this dish. Start with cooked chicken breasts, either grilled or baked.
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked (grilled or baked)
1 pound bacon
3 cups baby spinach leaves, washed
5 ounces sun-dried julienne-cut tomatoes in oil (reserve 1 tablespoon of the oil for cooking)
4 ounces fresh mushrooms, washed and dried
4 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Grill chicken breasts or bake in the oven. Set aside, keeping warm to be served with sauce.
Fry bacon in a large skillet until crisp. › Remove bacon and set aside, leaving a little bacon grease in the skillet. › Sauté onion and garlic in bacon grease until fragrant. › Add mushrooms, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes and sauté until spinach is wilted and mushrooms begin to soften. › Reduce heat and add broth and cream. › Stir and bring to a gentle simmer. › Sprinkle in parmesan cheese. › To serve, pour sauce over cooked chicken breasts and add crumbled bacon.
3 cups self-rising flour
1/4 cup sugar
One 12-ounce bottle of beer, at room temperature
Mix flour and sugar. › Pour in beer. › Mix just until combined, but don’t overmix. › Pour into a loaf pan. › Bake at 375 degrees for 60 minutes.