Best Cook: Portuguese Kale Soup

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Ruth O’Donnell’s kale soup has nourished generations of her Provincetown family and friends.

Ruth O’Donnell is standing in her kitchen, shredding kale for her special Portuguese soup, which she’s made … how many times?”I can’t count that high,” she says. “I’m 96, and I’ve been making it since I was a girl. I make it all the time.”

Her nieces, Paula and Ruth (“Baby Ruth”), are in the next room. They’re visiting, and last night a big pot of this soup, which they call “Portuguese penicillin,” vanished before Ruth’s eyes. So she’s making more. A petite, lively, brown-skinned lady with bright eyes, Ruth has cooked in this particular kitchen for 72 years, the path between sink and stove well worn.

It’s been a long, good life, but not without adversity. Her mother was left on a doorstep in Portugal; a benevolent family took her in and brought her over to live with them after they settled in America. “My mother was poor, poor, poor,” Ruth says. “I learned to cook from her as soon as I was big enough to stand beside her. She’d have something on the stove, and she’d be showing me how to do it as she went along. That’s how I learned. We never had recipes. We’d just do it.”

A widow of 44 years, Ruth is never alone. She has three daughters and “I can’t tell you how many grandchildren I have!” In fact, she has great-grandchildren, and her refrigerator door is covered with their faces. She may not be able to count them all (photos of family gatherings look like conventions or town meetings), but she can tell you all about each one of them.

Living where she does, in the heart of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Ruth has pretty much seen it all. She worked as a waitress for much of her life: 21 years at the Provincetown Inn and 20 more at Ciro and Sal’s, both widely known Provincetown eateries, which has made Ruth widely known, too. Aside from her soup, she’s famous for her “flippers,” a kind of Portuguese fried dough, similar to fritters.

“I used to have people in this house lined up,” Ruth remembers, as she points through the kitchen and out into the dining room. “Sometimes I didn’t even know who was here, but they were all here for my flippers. I couldn’t flip them fast enough.”

When the soup is done, we sit at the little table as more nieces arrive, bearing gifts. They hug, they kiss. It’s time to be together, talk, and have soup.

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