FULTON – She was warm, funny, feisty, motherly, a talented journalist and a whiz in the kitchen.
Former Sauk Valley Media Food Editor Grace Whitten, author of the popular "Dash of Grace" food column, died Monday at Harbor Crest Nursing Home in Fulton. She was 81.
Grace started her 40-year career as a Quad-City Times correspondent in 1973, and retired from then-Sauk Valley Newspapers in August 2013.
In between, she single-handedly raised a boisterous family, pursued a degree in English at Sauk Valley Community College, boosted her skills and earning potential by learning about computers and copy layout with the help of a friend, and wrote, wrote, wrote.
Oh, and she cooked a bit, too.
In addition to the Times, she was a stringer for the Fulton Journal, the Clinton (Iowa) Herald, and the Rockford Register Star.
Suddenly divorced with six kids to raise and no insurance, she persuaded Herald editor Bill Baker to take her on full-time
She started out as the Herald's farm reporter, then regional reporter, then regional editor. She tackled the cops and courts beat before becoming assistant editor.
In 1997, the Times hired Grace to be its Clinton bureau chief, then SVN managed to steal her away, making her its Morrison bureau chief 17 years ago, on Sept. 10, 2001, and putting her in charge of the Whiteside West publication.
When the Morrison bureau closed, Grace moved to the main office and started writing about food.
Thanks to her folksy, down-to-earth style, "Dash of Grace" developed a strong following, and in 2005, the newspaper put together a cookbook – a compilation of some of Grace's favorite recipes – which, to our great delight, she often tried out on her salivating co-workers.
(We're running her favorite, a jambalaya as spicy as Grace and her ruby-red lipstick, one last time. You're welcome. Enjoy.)
Jim Dunn, editor of the Bureau County Republican and Sauk Valley Media's opinion page editor, worked with Grace all the years she was with the company.
"I was really sad to hear about Grace’s passing," Dunn said Tuesday. "She meant so much to our newspaper for the many years she was here.
"I can’t help but smile when I think about her wit and wisdom. When she got that sparkle in her eyes, you knew she was about to say or do something funny ... and she was about as versatile a newswoman as I’ve ever met."
Over the years, Grace and SVM's chief photographer Alex Paschal, who shot photos of Grace weekly for the food section, developed a close friendship.
"She was an incredibly caring person, always asking me about my family and whatever I was up to at the time and encouraging me to not get down at the stresses of work and life," Paschal said.
"My favorite story involved Grace and her longtime friend Father Arnie. After returning from a doctor's appointment she told me the nurse was going through a standard list of questions, one of them being 'Might you be pregnant?'" he said.
"Well into her 70s at that point, Grace's 'no' was met with the standard 'How can you be sure?'
'Cause my boyfriend's a priest!'
"Grace was one of a kind ... one that will be missed and the kind that can never be replaced."
Bosma-Renkes Funeral Home in Fulton will be assisting with arrangements, which the family is making Wednesday, and an obituary will be available later that afternoon at bosmarenkes.com.
Someone recently asked me what my favorite dish is to cook, and I had a tough time choosing, but finally settled on this.
Jambalaya is a Cajun gumbo dish, and I can't remember where the original recipe came from, I have been making it for so many years. It had to have started with my Auntie Plynah, who lived in the Bayou country in Louisiana and whose son married a Cajun woman. And probably everyone who passed it on added his or her own special touches.
I will warn you, it is spicy. You could cut down on the Cajun spice and leave out the hot sauce altogether, but it really would not be the same.
In fact, the spices I have listed here are very conservative, so add more to taste if you like spicy and hot.
I probably use twice the amounts listed here, especially of the Cajun spice.
4 tablespoons oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cloves minced garlic
1 pound of smoked sausage, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 large onions, sliced
2 large green peppers, sliced
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
1 to 1 1/2 cups water
3 cups V-8 vegetable juice
1/2 to 1 cup cut-up okra (fresh or frozen)
1 cup white minute rice
Louisiana Hot Sauce or Tabasco sauce, a few drops to taste
1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
In a large pot, saute the chicken and garlic in oil until the chicken is nearly done, then add the sausage, onions and peppers. The onions and peppers are not chopped, but sliced: Cut them in quarters, then cut into medium slices.
Combine the salt, pepper and Cajun spice and sprinkle over the chicken and vegetables mixture.
Saute just until the vegetables are a little tender and the chicken is no longer pink. Add water, V-8 juice and okra and simmer 20 minutes, stirring a couple of times. Add shrimp, rice and hot sauce and simmer for 5 more minutes, until the shrimp is pink and the rice is tender. If you need more liquid, add water, chicken broth or V-8 juice. It should be the consistency of a thick stew.
Serve this hardy gumbo up in big bowls. This dish heats up well and the leftovers are delicious. This makes about 8-10 servings, depending on who you are feeding.
I serve this dish with cornbread. You can make your own cornbread or use a mix. Sometimes I use Jiffy mix, not only because it is easy but because I really like the taste of it. I have made the cornbread into muffins, but I prefer baking it in an iron skillet and serving it up in big hunks with a dash of real butter.