There’s a lot of color in Sheila Parsons’ kitchen, but it’s not the environment that immediately catches the eye. It’s the lady herself.
Sheila smiles bright and bold at the opportunity to welcome people into her home, especially the kitchen she’s made the centerpiece there for 40 years. Everything about her is strong and popping with rich tones — from the art pieces on her walls that each tell a story to the fabric necklace she wears crocheted by a friend.
“I can’t live without color,” she says. “My mother was a painter and my father was a musician, so I grew up not knowing there was anything other than art.”
Sheila is a well-established artist who has adventured all over the world teaching art classes. There are traces of her world travels around her home and her kitchen is filled with pottery from places that framed her love of people, culture and food.
“When I was a child, I always wanted to travel, to live in a place, not just check it out,” Sheila says.
And she did.
Sheila, a Batesville native, served in both the Peace Corps in Bolivia and Teacher Corps after earning a Masters Degree at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. She took a teaching position at the Brooklyn Friends School — a K-12 school known for its culturally diverse curriculum. She taught at the American High School in Mexico City during the Vietnam War. Her son, Lucian, was born with a dual citizenship.
“I loved living in Mexico,” she says. “It was the noise on the street, the music you hear, you can see mountains from anywhere and the people are so friendly. They really have a sense of separation of work from their lives.”
Now Lucian and wife, Kelly, reside in Maryland where he heads a virtual reality educational department at the University of Maryland. They have two children, Elizabeth “Van D.”, 9, and Creighton, 11.
“We see them four times a year,” Sheila says. “I can’t stand it too long.”
Her grandchildren call her Nana.
“Van D. won me over during Thanksgiving dinner when she asked to be excused to work on her art,” Sheila says. “I mean, of course!”
The grandchildren love Nana’s chicken and dumplings and always ask for “Nana’s Sketti.”
“I just throw everything in that comes along — artichokes, olives — you name it! I love the way the [dish] makes the house smell,” she says.
Growing up, Sheila credits her mother with teaching her how to cook, albeit a trial by chicken.
“Mother let me cook,” she laughs. “I remember the first thing I ever made was a cake for my daddy’s birthday. I was about 12. I remember he cut it and said, ‘Well, that’s nice and firm!’ He was trying to be nice, but I knew a cake wasn’t supposed to be firm! I cried and cried.
“But the rule in our house was if you chose not to go to church, you had to fix Sunday dinner. I remember the first time that happened. I had been out with friends and gotten in late. I just told my mother I couldn’t go to church. She said, ‘Fine. The chicken is in the fridge. Have it ready.’
“When I opened the fridge, it was a whole chicken! I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken, but I knew dinner couldn’t be late. So I cut up that chicken into about 17 pieces!”
Her mother’s influence is prominent, still. Sheila’s table settings were inherited and she uses them with joy regularly.
“No one is going to want to use them when I’m gone,” she advises. “Enjoy what you have. That’s what’s intended.”
Sheila’s favorite meals are influenced by her many trips to Acapulco where she taught art classes through the years at Flying Colors, a workshop for artists.
“I think my favorite times were times in Acapulco sharing wonderful meals with people,” she says. “Even now, I love to entertain. I love to set a table with bright colors.”
On a recent afternoon, Sheila invited friends for summer soups. Both recipes were plucked from a favorite cookbook written by Flying Colors founder Johanna Morrell, “From Palette to Palate.”
The first course was Cold Avocado Soup, followed by a rich and eye-pleasing Painter’s Palette Soup.
“Food is a gift because of the people you share it with,” she says. “I think art and food both are titillating to your senses. I had a friend once tell me, ‘Sheila, you gulp life!’ I guess that’s not a bad thing.”
Cold Avocado Soup
• 2 large or 3 smaller avocados
• ½ cup powdered milk
• 1 quart milk (2% or whole)
• 1 Tblsp. Knorr Suiza powdered
• Chicken broth (sold in jars) — OR 3-4
• Bouillon cubes
• Juice of 1 lime
Throw it all in a blender and chill for 6-24 hours. Season with salt and white pepper. Top with any of the following: parsley, chopped chives, slice of lime or avocado. Serve with crusty bread.
Painter’s Palette Soup
It’s OK to play with your soup! Potato leek soup any way you want to make it, but puree it.
• ½ tsp. Chicken bouillon
• 4 leeks — white parts only
• 4 large potatoes
• Salt and pepper
Dice & cook together until soft, then puree in small batches in a blender. Add whole or 2% milk to the right consistency. After all is pureed, keep warm or refrigerate until serving time.
The Paints: In separate pots, salt and boil them to a vigorous simmer
• Pot 1 — ½ lb. chopped baby carrots and 1 Tblsp. Sugar
• Pot 2 — a couple of beets cut into little sticks and 1 Tblsp. Sugar
• Pot 3 — blanche a bunch of spinach and 1 Tblsp. Sugar
Then, individually puree those. These are your paints. Dribble a little of each color in the soup and drag a toothpick through it for design. Voila!