Anita Doty, whose delicious gumbo begat 2 Chicago-area restaurants, dead at 78
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Flour, oil and 30 or so minutes of stirring.
It sounds simple, but Anita Doty’s ingredients coalesced into a roux that seemed to embody New Orleans in a bowl, becoming the basis for a business that employed four generations of her family.
Years ago, Ms. Doty used the caramel-colored, nutty-scented potion to make around 30 quarts of gumbo for family and friends each New Year’s Day. Relatives noticed it drew people who just happened to be in the neighborhood when she began ladling it out.
“You would have people come in, and they would have $20 in their hands, waving it, ‘Can I get a bowl?’ ’’ said her granddaughter Cynjora Ross.
Ms. Doty was so protective of the recipe that, when she was cooking it, “We were not allowed to go in the kitchen for years,” her granddaughter said.
The gumbo formula — handed down by her New Orleans-born dad, Irving Sheldon Jones — uses the “holy trinity” of Louisiana cooking: celery, onion and bell pepper. And it brims with crab meat, shrimp, scallops, okra and chicken andouille sausage, with a little cornbread on the side to sop up the roux.
“My father and all his family are from New Orleans, and so he would always cook gumbo,” Ms. Doty said on the TV show “Chicago’s Best.” “He put a lot of love in. It became so good, until everybody started coming over, and we decided to open up Nita’s Gumbo.”
It was supposed to be a catering business.
“We didn’t know it was going to go this far,” her granddaughter said. “We wanted to give the world a taste.”
“The family started selling bowls of gumbo from Ms. Doty’s home, first to family and friends, and news soon spread to police officers and others who told others, and the line would stretch down the block,” said Kenya Renee, a goddaughter.
In 2014, relatives started Nita’s Gumbo Express, a takeout eatery at 8100 S. Stony Island. In addition to three kinds of gumbo, it features jambalaya, po’boy sandwiches and buttermilk wings. A sitdown restaurant, Nita’s Gumbo, opened in February in Country Club Hills at 4153 W. 183rd St. That’s where Ms. Doty’s funeral repast was held.
She died May 11 at Rush University Medical Center of complications from breast cancer, according to her family. She was 78.
She grew up Anita Mae Jones in Woodlawn. She went to Sexton grade school and Chicago Vocational High School.
“My mother started working at the age of 12,” said her daughter Denise Edge.
Young Anita shelled and deveined shrimp at White’s shrimp house on the South Side. Later, she worked at a Kodak factory developing film and at Viskase, a sausage casings company.
“You could tell by her hands that she used them,” her daughter said.
Ms. Doty also did clerical work for the Social Security Administration and worked with kids in the care of the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Her fashion style was clean and classic, according to her granddaughter, who said she might wear white T-shirts and jeans, but her nails and hair were always done.
“She was a stickler [about] not wiping up,” her granddaughter said. After chopping and cooking, “immediately you had to wipe behind her” on the counter. “If you left anything, it would vex her.”
“When you walked in her home, nothing was ever out of place,” Ross said. “She had cream-colored carpet and white leather furniture. You never saw a spot.”
Edge has happy memories of her mother making popcorn for the kids, who’d then “sit down and watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or “Bewitched.’ ”
Ms. Doty enjoyed occasional trips to a riverboat casino, her granddaughter said.
She is also survived by daughters Diana Harris and Cynthia Davis, son Derrick, 12 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren, Denise Edge said. Services have been held.
Nita’s Gumbo’s shrimp étouffée
1 stick butter
1/4 cup flour
5 cups seasoned shrimp stock — 4 cups shrimp shells, 2 qts. water, seasonings to taste
1/2 cup diced red peppers
1/2 cup diced green peppers
1/2 cup diced yellow peppers
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup diced scallions
1/4 cup diced stewed tomatoes
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 tbsp. white pepper
Crushed red pepper, to taste
1 tbsps. salt
10 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
For the roux: Melt butter in a pot to a simmer. Add flour, continually stirring rapidly until caramelized. Stir in 3 cups of shrimp stock and the garlic powder, onion powder and white pepper, then simmer for 15 minutes. (Use prepared Swanson seafood stock or, to make stock from scratch, combine 2 quarts of water and 4 cups of shrimp shells in pot. Add 2 tablespoons salt, plus pepper and any other seasonings to taste. Heat to a rapid boil, then bring down to medium heat for 20 minutes. Drain stock and set aside.)
To finish dish: Add red peppers, yellow peppers, green peppers, celery and onion. Mix in 2 more cups of stock, and stir in any additional seasonings you like, such as red pepper, to taste. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp with diced tomatoes. Cook about 5 more minutes, until shrimp are bright pink and cooked through. Garnish with scallions. Serve over rice. Serves 4.
Note: This recipe is the basis for the shrimp étouffee served at Nita’s Gumbo. Anita Doty’s relatives customize it further with their own techniques and seasonings. They say home cooks should use this as a template and improvise until it tastes just right to you.