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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, ‌face of Puerto Rican culinary history, dies at 67

By Christina Morales

Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, a food historian who as Puerto Rico’s leading gastronomy expert sought to define the island’s cuisine and educate the world about it, died March 8 in San Juan. He was 67.

His brother Carlos Ortiz Cuadra confirmed the death, in a hospital. He said that Ortiz Cuadra had recently had a heart attack, and that he had lung cancer last year, which had been in remission.

Ortiz Cuadra first became interested in food history as a student at Ruskin College in Oxford, England, said Crystal Díaz, a graduate student of his at the University of Puerto Rico. Passing by a food symposium, he decided to attend on a whim. Experts were talking about the roots of certain foods and their traditions, a kind of discourse he had never heard in Puerto Rico.

When he returned to the island to complete his doctorate in history at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, he decided to write his dissertation on the basic ingredients of the territory’s gastronomy.

That report ended up as the basis for one of the island’s most important books on its gastronomy: “Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture and Identity,” published in Spanish in 2006 and in English in 2013. That book, which supplied the political and economic context to the production and consumption of particular foods, became one of the primary resources on the roots of Puerto Rican food.

“At the time, anything about food was women’s work,” Díaz said, adding that people didn’t understand “the value that food history can have on our society.”

Through his books, podcasts, speaking engagements and university teaching, Ortiz Cuadra became the face of the island’s food history.

His last book was “From Oller’s Plantains to Food Trucks: Food, Eating, and Puerto Rican Cuisine in Essays and Recipes,” published in Spanish in 2020.

He helped spearhead a successful project to have roast pork declared a part of the island’s gastronomic heritage, Díaz said, creating the first and only certificate program in Puerto Rican gastronomic patrimony, which was supported by the Center of Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico.

Ortiz Cuadra’s research often uncovered little-known facts that led to the reassessment of culinary assumptions. For example, Díaz said, in his latest research he discovered that the island’s Spanish colonizers didn’t make a distinction between bananas and plantains — which means that it is actually unknown which arrived in the Americas first.

Ortiz Cuadra grew up with an early appreciation for food, his brother Carlos said. When their mother cooked, she called her children over so that they could learn her recipes for classic Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con pollo.

“It was something that gave him that interest for his future,” Carlos Ortiz Cuadra said.

Family activities were centered on food, especially Ortiz Cuadra’s cooking, his brother said. His cooking was very similar to their mother’s, but he also had an interest in Spanish cuisine.

“When he invited us to his house, it was an invitation to eat well,” Carlos Ortiz Cuadra said.

Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra was born June 9, 1955, in Fort Benning, Georgia, where his father, Humberto Ortiz Gordils, was in the Army. The family returned to Puerto Rico in 1957, and Ortiz Gordils later became a lawyer. His mother, Providencia Cuadra Garcia, was a homemaker.

He is survived by his wife, Anita González; three brothers, Carlos, Humberto and Geraldo; and two sisters, Vanessa and María Carolina Ortiz Cuadra.

Ortiz Cuadra taught humanities, with a focus on food, at the University of Puerto Rico and had recently retired. He mentored students and chefs and was known for making his food research accessible to anyone who asked.

He also wrote about the island’s culinary history for 80 Grados, an online publication, where he recently used the Spanish cliche “as simple as rice and beans” as a jumping-off point to discuss the history of the dish and explain why making it properly can actually be complicated.

He once wrote a piece on the history of food trucks in Puerto Rico, explaining how self-proclaimed “foodies” and readily available online culinary history contributed to their growth on the island.

His books and research have been used to find solutions to Puerto Rico’s food insecurity, which stems from the island’s reliance on imported products. He worked on a project to help identify native and naturalized ingredients in order to preserve and propagate them. Chefs use his work on Puerto Rican ingredients to curate their menus and to have their staffs explain the dishes.

He not only taught the Puerto Rican culinary history certification program, he also helped his former students create projects that would help lead the island to food independence. And he had strong relationships with restaurateurs, chefs, mom-and-pop shops, farmers and home cooks.

“There was not another scholar or mentor who did that kind of educational, more pedagogical work,” said Mónica Ocasio Vega, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin who adopted him as a mentor.

As a chef, María Mercedes Grubb, a restaurant consultant and a former owner of the Gallo Negro restaurant in San Juan, was always curious about the history of the food she ate. Ortiz Cuadra, she said, “seemed to be the only person who had those answers.”

Grubb said that Ortiz Cuadra’s work was a reminder for her to reconnect with her roots and to ask questions of her family, like how her mother in the Dominican Republic cooked without an oven, or how she stored food without a refrigerator. Her knowledge, stemming from his research, allowed her to learn how to make a dish and then gave her the confidence to put her own spin on it.

He was, she said, Puerto Rico’s living version of Larousse Gastronomique, the culinary encyclopedia.

“I didn’t know anybody who had that amount of wealth of knowledge about the history of our food,” Grubb said. She was, she said, recently left wondering, “What didn’t we get from him, and who’s going to carry that torch?”

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