Legendary Houston Food Editor Passes Away After Battle With COVID-19

Ann Criswell and Hugo Ortega

Before chefs sought and were propelled to celebrity status, newspaper coverage of food and drink tended to be more centered on recipes and enabling home cooks to raise their skills and bring the world’s food cultures into their kitchens. For almost 36 years, Ann Criswell presided over delivering this knowledge to the Houston Chronicle’s readers as food editor. This morning, she passed away at the age of 87 after months of fighting COVID-19.

She was born in the tiny town of Mineola, Texas, which still has a population of fewer than 5,000. In 1957, she relocated to Houston, where her father was an assistant Harris County attorney. A journalism major who graduated with honors from Texas State College for Women (later renamed to Texas Woman’s University), Criswell started working at the Chronicle in 1961. Five years later, she was promoted to editor of the food section — the first of its kind in Houston.

She retired in 2000, but until the past two years was still a fixture in the food scene — one that she bore witness to as news coverage transformed more from a home cooking focus to one that put restaurants and chefs at the center. In 2017, she was honored by the Houston Culinary Guild as a “living legend” at a dinner at Christie’s Seafood & Steaks. As recently as 2018, Criswell was still helping judge the annual Houston Caesar Salad competition, which raises funds for the Houston Food & Beverage Managers Association scholarship fund.

According to friend and public relations professional Paula Murphy, Criswell relocated to an assisted living facility in Bryan-College Station to be closer to family.  “I’ve kept in touch with her and talked to her frequently,” said Murphy. “She was at the assisted living facility when it had a massive COVID outbreak early in the pandemic. She was able to stay safe until October, and then she was tested and found out she had it on her birthday.”

This year, Houston has suffered particularly cruel losses among those who helped develop its well-respected culinary culture. Cleverley Stone, food journalist and founder of Houston Restaurant Weeks, died in May. Respected restaurateur Vincent Mandola, of Nino’s and Vincent’s, died of heart failure in July, a month after he’d also contracted COVID-19. In September, legendary restaurateur Tony Vallone passed away after years of declining health.

ann criswell bubba butera frank mandola
Ann Criswell with Bubba Butera, left, and Frank Mandola, right, who passed away in 2016. Photo by Paula Murphy.

Criswell leaves behind a daughter, Catherine, son, Charles, and four grandchildren. Charles worked for over 30 years in Houston restaurants such as Eddie V’s and Vallone’s before co-founding Porter’s, a restaurant in College Station. On Facebook, Catherine requested that those who wish to honor Criswell’s memory can do so by making a donation to the Houston Food Bank. This year, the demand for food assistance is expected to be especially crushing because so many people are out-of-work.

For her readers, Criswell leaves behind a swath of articles, books and recipes. Of the latter, many of her fans have adopted these as heartily as if she was a personal relative passing down family treasures. As her pecan pie, jalapeño cornbread and pumpkin cheesecake continue to adorn family tables, especially during the holidays, her legacy lives on.

Below is the full obituary posted by Criswell’s daughter, Cathy, this morning. A writer to the very end, Criswell of course composed it herself. That’s for the best, as few are properly equipped to thoroughly cover a long life so full of rich stories.

This morning, my mom died.

Here is the obituary she wrote for herself several years ago.

COVID sucks.


Posted by Cathy Lester on Tuesday, December 15, 2020

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