Long-time Houston Chronicle food editor dies of COVID-19

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Ann Criswell, who shaped the Houston Chronicle’s kitchen and home cooking cover for more than three decades and championed the Houston food scene as it rose to prominence, died on December 15. She was 87 years old.

Criswell died of complications from COVID-19, which she contracted while residing in a nursing home in College Station.

During his long tenure as food writing, Criswell led Houston cooks through sweeping changes in home cooking while documenting how and what the emerging international food city ate. She has covered topics ranging from slow cooker to wok cooking to nouvelle cuisine, and has edited recipes ranging from the humble (calling for canned cream of mushroom) to high (tough soufflés and the introduction of trendy ingredients such as radicchio and star fruit). Along the way, she met and interviewed food superstars Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne.

In Houston, she was one herself.

“Ann Criswell saw in the future that Houston was a great food city, even though the rest of the world didn’t yet know it. She saw Houston coming from Tex-Mex and chicken fried steak to the food town she became when she retired. She saw it all happen, ”said Alex Brennan-Martin, owner of Brennan’s of Houston. “She deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the state of the Houston restaurant scene. She was there for it all and a driver behind it. “

But it was Criswell’s tireless work on behalf of everyday home cooks that drew her to Houston Chronicle readers. She engaged directly with subscribers, taking their calls and answering their endless cooking questions. She has become a spiritual guide for those who wish to try new recipes.

Criswell was born on October 26, 1933 to George D. Minick, lawyer, and Alma Minick, elementary school teacher, in Mineola. She graduated from high school at age 15 and went to college at Texas Women’s University (then Texas State College for Women) in Denton, where she received a journalism degree at age 19 in 1954. In 1957, she moved to Houston where her father was Harris County Assistant. lawyer. She found work in the Houston Post’s “Women’s Department”, where she wrote marriage stories for nearly four years. It was at the Post that she met journalist Jim Criswell. They married in 1961 and had two children, Catherine and Charles. Jim Criswell died of cancer in 1978.

She joined The Chronicle in 1961, writing first about home furnishings and Houston society. In 1966, she was hired to run the newspaper’s first food section; she remained the culinary editor until her retirement in 2000.

His food sections were gigantic – 26-30 pages each week.

“It was like producing a little newspaper on my own… I did it all. I assigned photos, wrote the headlines, wrote a column, edited the stories, simulated the pages. It was from start to finish, ”she told The Chronicle in 2014, recalling the early days. “Then I would come down and watch him come out of the press – that was the highlight of my week. It was like being a midwife. Every week I felt like I was having a baby.

A one-woman publishing juggernaut, Criswell also found time to write eight cookbooks. Her job of producing this weekly “baby” was her passion, however. And she was meticulous about it, driving every story and recipe from idea to word in print.

But even the most careful publisher can have a misstep and one in particular has haunted Criswell for decades. A recipe that called for four chicken breasts ended up printed as “4 children’s breasts”. The typo earned Criswell a Texas Monthly “Bum Steer Award”. While his family secretly laughed about it, it was an honest mistake that horrified the perfectionist publisher.

Robert Del Grande, award-winning chef James Beard who ushered in a new era of dining at Café Annie in the early 1980s, remembers Criswell as an editor whose recipes evolved as the city did – becoming de increasingly sophisticated and adventurous as international foods have become more widely available at the supermarket level.

“We’ve talked a lot about recipes and what can be accomplished at home,” said Del Grande. “She said there’s no point in a recipe if you can’t get the ingredients. Like Julia Child, too, she said that a recipe that doesn’t work is no use.

Del Grande called Criswell a “life force”, who “had his proverbial finger on the pulse of things.”

“She was a collaborator. She worked with everyone and always supported and encouraged what we were doing, ”added Del Grande. “She was the center of a great collaborative community.”

And she shared what she knew, said Sara Brook, owner of the Dessert Gallery.

“She raised a whole generation of restaurateurs and caterers,” said Brook, former president of the Houston Culinary Guild, an organization of restaurant professionals that Criswell helped found in the early 1980s. careers and thousands of home cooks. She was a single mom raising kids and being a food writer before it was a thing. She was so meticulous in her recipes. His deadlines arrived every week without fail.

These deadline adherents – his colleagues at the newspaper – remember Criswell with great affection and respect.

“She was such a perfectionist when it came to working out. It would become ballistic if a recipe went wrong, ”said Linda Gillan Griffin, former fashion editor for Chronicle.

Griffin and Criswell were part of a group of Chronicle editors whose informal meetings merged into a group they dubbed “the Stets” (stet is an editing and proofreading term that means “let go. put it back “previously marked change).

“We all knew our rhythms really well and worked like demons,” Griffin said.

Griffin added that Criswell reigned supreme over the holidays for his readers. “To me, she was the grandmother of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and other holidays too,” she said. “Anyone who didn’t have the recipe was calling to see if they had it. And generally, she did.

Criswell also applied the fundamentals of good reporting, coupled with a natural curiosity, to his work, said longtime editor Claudia Feldman.

“She worked long, hard hours every day at a job that she loved. And she understood what we all know today: that food and cooking are not just women’s jobs. It’s a hobby, a passion, a health issue, a huge subject that fascinates most of us, ”said Feldman. “Her subject was food, but she was a news dog and could have written about any subject in the newspaper.”

Even in retirement, Criswell never quashed his journalistic instinct.

“One thing I liked about Ann was that she was always curious, always wanting to learn something new. At Culinary Guild meetings long after her retirement, she still had a pen and paper and took notes as if writing an article, ”said Paula Murphy, whose public relations firm Patterson & Murphy represents top restaurants. and Houston Chiefs. “And she wrote in shorthand. She had a thirst for knowledge and an innate curiosity.

Criswell’s work has allowed him to travel, visit different cities, meet chefs and learn about culinary trends. She has judged many national competitions, such as the Pillsbury Bake-off (the Tunnel of Fudge Cake winner of this competition in 1966, by Ella Helfrich of Houston, was among the most requested recipes during Criswell’s tenure as food editor). Everything she learned she brought back to Houston in the service of the newspaper’s readers. She was devoted to them; they were loyal to him.

When asked if she would do it again, she said yes without hesitation. “It was the best job at the newspaper. My work was so personal and involved with the readers. I just loved it. It was my life. It was absolutely my life.

Criswell is survived by his daughter Catherine Lester, his son Charles Criswell, his stepdaughter Sandra (Sam) Criswell and four grandchildren. The family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Houston Food Bank.

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