Ann Lemons Pollack: A Well-Seasoned Life

“Sometimes, dreams do come true,” Ann wrote in the opening of a 2014 article about the Chelsea Flower Show. Adorned with photos of lush flowers from “one of the great rituals of the London year,” her article in the Ladue News inadvertently captured a symbolic element of her colorful spirit.

Never a shrinking violet, Ann Lemons Pollack moved between many different worlds during her 76 years.

She was as comfortable picking wild blackberries in Southeast Missouri as browsing the formal gardens of London or the Christmas markets of Switzerland, as happy eating chili five-way at Steak ‘n Shake as dining at a five-star restaurant in New York, as passionate about helping terminally ill cancer patients as covering the St. Louis theater scene.

The number of roles she played is lengthy: nurse, writer, cook, eater, mother, wife, traveler, volunteer, neighbor, friend.

At times, her life unfolded like acts in the plays she would eventually write about, filled with unexpected twists and turns. She transformed herself, going from a struggling single mother on welfare while in nursing school to fulfilling long-held dreams as an accomplished author and world traveler. In a sense, she may have been the Lead Belt’s version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, both Missouri natives who not only survived adversity but thrived.

Childhood Twists and Turns

Ann’s story starts in Tennessee. Her mother, single and a nurse, became pregnant during a brief wartime romance with a married man. No doubt a bit of a local scandal, her mother was discretely whisked away to The Willows, a famed home in Kansas City for unwed mothers, for the final months of the pregnancy. Ann was born on Bastille Day, 1945, a touch of foreshadowing for the future history buff and sometime revolutionary.

The blonde-haired baby was quickly adopted by two schoolteachers from Desloge, a small town in southeastern Missouri anchored by work from the neighboring lead mines in St. Francois County. Harold and Ruth Daniels, unable to have children on their own, stayed busy with a smart and precocious daughter – who quickly developed a voracious curiosity and an appetite for reading. Oddly, those qualities did not carry over into food; she was a self-confessed “picky eater” early on.

Mary Ann – as she was known growing up – was already reading before kindergarten. She excelled early in school, but not without a few bumps. Most notably she found herself in the first-grade class that her mother taught – in the same school where her grandfather, Frank Cozean, served as principal. The mother-daughter relationship, at times strained at home, struggled in the classroom. The solution, the school decided, was to move Mary Ann up a grade after school had started. The arrangement worked.

It was a different kind of storm Mary Ann weathered in May 1957. A devastating string of tornadoes roared through St. Francois County on “Black Tuesday,” destroying nearby homes in Desloge and neighboring towns. In a scene reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, with the wind roaring outside her window, Mary Ann hid under her bed, clutching her little dog, a snowball-white Spitz named Scamp. A few yards away, a tall oak tree smashed the family garage. A few blocks away, the tornado decimated the high school.

In the days ahead, the devastation forced students to take classes in rail cars, with her father even teaching his shop classes in one. Photographers from Life magazine hustled in to record the aftermath.

The rest of her school years took other twists and turns. In high school, she had her first brush with the media, heading a fan club for “Spooktacular,” a monster show that aired on KTVI in St. Louis.

1960s: A Decade of Challenge and Change

Life began to move quickly for Mary Ann. In high school, she had an early marriage to Terry Starkey on November 24, 1961 – with her parents’ blessing – at age 16. They moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was stationed in the Air Force. She finished high school there and conceived her son, Terry, born in 1963.

Moving back to Missouri, her early marriage crumbled, ending in divorce in 1964. She briefly went to Barnes Nursing School before meeting and marrying her second husband, Jim Lemons, on March 18, 1965. She gave birth to their daughter, Jennifer, on Memorial Day 1968 while the Indy 500 aired on the radio in the Farmington hospital room. Bobby Unser took the checkered flag, but the real winners were Ann and Jim, who finished the day with a daughter.

During this period, Ann – as she was now known – and Jim moved frequently. He sold cars at a string of Ford dealerships, racing in short order from Herculaneum to Hannibal and eventually to St. Louis.

The early 1970s presented unique challenges. Ann navigated raising two young children, complicated by the stress of a struggling marriage and financial difficulties. Separated from her husband, she moved back to St. Francois County to a farm outside Farmington.

While on welfare and living in a small house converted from a one-time chicken coop, Ann made a critical decision. To support her children, she needed to take matters into her own hands. So she returned to her earlier dream of becoming a nurse, making a last-minute decision to enroll at nearby Mineral Area College in 1970.

Taking Matters Into Her Own Hands: From Nursing To Writing

It was a life-changing choice that put her back on track. Juggling school work with weekend work at a local hospital, she stayed on top of her classes, parented her two children and met her best friend, Mary Mallory.

Ann even played a role in the school’s theater production of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” As she found her voice on the stage, she started to find her voice in other areas. She graduated with honors and earned an associate degree in 1972 at “MAC,” soon leaving St. Francois County for a nursing job in St. Louis and moving to the LaClede Town neighborhood in midtown St. Louis. She reconciled with her second husband, though the marriage ended amicably in 1975.

Following the whirlwind series of events, Ann made her initial foray into writing while in LaClede Town. In the local community paper, the Mill Creek Valley Intelligencer, she wrote a travel piece about the Great River Road in Illinois in November 1973.

Ann’s interest in food pulled her down the same Mississippi River to New Orleans, where summer trips in the mid-1970s led her to write letters to a local New Orleans food newsletter. The publisher of New Orleans Menu liked them so much that he invited her to write actual articles. Inspired by her love for food writers like M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, her fledgling writing career began to simmer.

During this period, she also continued her other passion – nursing. Ann took an encore turn balancing working and parenting with attending school, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from St. Louis University in 1977. She cared for patients in several St. Louis hospitals, frequently working the evening and night shifts at places like Booth Hospital for unwed mothers, Barnes Hospital in the medical intensive care unit and Lutheran Hospital with terminally ill patients.

At the same time, Ann's writing continued blossoming. She joined St. Louis Dining in 1984 as an editor-at-large, picking up bylines and columns in numerous other publications in the decades to come, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Magazine, Sauce Magazine and the Ladue News as well appearing on St. Louis radio and television stations.

Nourishing her food writing was her own work in the kitchen. Ann spent years experimenting with recipes on food, both routine and exotic, from octopus to oxtail, which she noted occurred “over varying degrees of protest” from her children. Terry and Jennifer survived, being paid off handsomely in the long run after her move to the Central West End in the early 1980s with gastronomic triumphs like lamb doused in fresh tarragon and white wine, apple tarts exploding with Granny Smith slices and the Amazon Chocolate Cake from her well-worn Cafe Beaujolais cookbook sprinkled with handwritten notes and the occasional spill.

With longtime friend Ron Jinkerson frequently in tow, Ann was as comfortable noshing on a hot dog from Woofie’s or a double-decker burger from Carl’s Drive-In as she was ordering veal chops at Tony’s or demanding authentic dim sum for brunch. Ultimately, Ann’s varied background and experiences in life and with food shaped her approach to writing.

The Perfect Pairing

Eventually, her food writing led to crossing paths with Joe Pollack, the venerable critic who covered restaurants, movies, theater and wine for the Post-Dispatch for several decades. Pulling them together was a shared fondness for a generous glass of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon – and at the other end of the spectrum, a root beer tasting for St. Louis Dining that was one of their earliest collaborations.

Ann’s relationship with Joe took a dramatic turn in the fall of 1994. One evening, Joe complained of an unusual stomachache. Alarmed that it was more than that, the nurse prodded her recalcitrant patient to visit the Barnes Emergency Room. It was a life-saving decision. When the initial review by the medical staff suggested he go home, Ann stood her ground and insisted something much worse was at hand. A scan ensued – confirming that Joe had a massive aneurysm erupting in his abdomen. He nearly died that night. Shaken by the near-death experience as he recuperated, Joe and Ann decided it was time to move up their plans to get married. Not later, but right there, while he was still a patient at the hospital where Ann once worked.

Despite the unusual circumstances that hastened the wedding on November 20, 1994, Ann frequently noted that she finally got marriage right on the third try. Just like a good meal with fine wine, Ann and Joe made a perfect pairing.

And like Ann and Joe themselves, their marriage had many dimensions. They were precinct volunteers for the St. Louis County Board Elections on many election days at Glenridge Elementary. They enjoyed friendships with people throughout their Moorlands neighborhood in Clayton. And they were true frequent flyers, traveling stateside and abroad to places like Norway, to visit Joe’s family members there.

They also found a partnership in their writing and media work, doing joint appearances at places like KWMU and writing together for St. Louis Magazine, where they co-authored a column called “The Well-Seasoned Life.” With Joe retired from the newspaper and Ann taking off her nurse’s cap, they turned to writing books centered on St. Louis. They co-wrote three books: Beyond Toasted Ravioli in 1998, Beyond Gooey Butter Cake in 2001 and The Great St. Louis Eats Book in 2005.

A New Chapter

Following Joe’s passing in 2012, Ann found solace in her writing. At the urging of friends, she also expanded into covering theater in St. Louis. Ann penned articles for Ladue News on travel and St. Louis Magazine on dining, restaurants, travel and nostalgia. Among many other activities, she became a board member for the St. Louis Media History Foundation and the local chapter of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State while also frequently brandishing yarn and needles with fellow members of her “knitting posse.”

Ann's work in the food arena led to her return to book writing, this time as a solo author for Arcadia Publishing. She wrote the history-themed Lost Restaurants of St. Louis in 2018. A successor book, Iconic Restaurants of St. Louis, came out in 2020 with a focus on current eateries.

The relationship between food critic and restaurant owner, by nature, can be a tenuous one. But Ann at times viewed her role as an ambassador for St. Louis restaurants – and the arts scene as well – all of which she regarded as underrated on the national level.

“Ann went really deep. She was equally discerning and encouraging,” observed Danny Meyer, the St. Louis native who founded New York City’s Union Square Hospitality Group and, among other restaurants, Shake Shack. “It’s rare for a restaurateur to be on the receiving end of that from a restaurant critic. Ann was a one-of-a-kind treasure and will be missed.”

A constant throughout Ann’s life was her ability to connect with people from many walks of life. She seemed to pick up new friends wherever she went – as an adolescent acquiring a lifelong pen pal in Wales, as a companion accompanying Joe on trips to Chile or as a solo traveler visiting Southeast Asia. In a similar vein, she picked up new family members along the way, gaining stepchildren and grandchildren through her marriages.

A Surprise in the Final Act

In yet another theatrical twist in Ann’s life, the results from a DNA test in 2017 produced an unexpected result. The tests revealed members of her own birth family, with several cousins in Tennessee. That – along with a change in Missouri law allowing birth details to be shared with adoptees – helped fulfill Ann’s long-held dream to learn more about her roots, discovering the Maples and Brewer families. Not only did she reach out to her cousins, friendships quickly bloomed. The common ancestry thread underscored a shared gene for good food and good conversation.

The revelation of her biological family was yet one more world – out of many different ones – that Ann connected to during her journey from Southeast Missouri to St. Louis to Tennessee and around the world.

Ann leaves behind a rich recipe of family and of friends, of writing and cooking, of caring and laughing. Blended together, these ingredients helped her make a difference in her well-seasoned life.

From Ann's Celebration of Life on July 24, 2022 at The Grandel in St. Louis. Updated for her birthday, July 2023. 

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