Who’s the best cook in town? You could probably provoke a lot of arguments — and eat a lot of really good food — trying to answer that question. Or you could rely on Yankee magazine, which named Mary Ruth (Cook) O’Donnell (1914-2012) the town’s “Best Cook” in its issue of January-February 2011, citing her kale soup — “Portuguese penicillin,” as her relatives called it — which had “nourished generations of her Provincetown family and friends.” (And, yes. Maiden name, Cook. Married name, O’Donnell. Portuguese.)
The article, by Edie Clark, was accompanied by lovely portraits of the vibrant 96-year-old by Julie Bidwell, who described the photo session on her blog, Jewels: Photography and Life. “At one point we needed some bread for the shot, so we went to the market. She insisted on driving and expertly wheeled her Honda, dodging tourists on bikes and foot. Back at her house about 10 minutes later we found two of her neighbors sitting at the kitchen table eating the freshly made kale soup.” The blog includes some unpublished portraits.
Mrs. O’Donnell’s appealing lack of pretense was made even plainer by the kale soup recipe that Yankee published, along with one for flippers. She disclosed that her secret ingredient — besides fresh kale and linguiça, obviously — was a stock complemented by Campbell’s Bean with Bacon, which she guessed she’d been using for about 50 years.
After all, it wasn’t as if she could make kale soup all day. Mrs. O’Donnell worked as a waitress for 21 years at the Provincetown Inn, and for another 20 years at Ciro & Sal’s. She had grown up among eight other children of Viola A. “Vo” (Ferreira) Cook (±1875-1960) and Manuel (Freitas) Cook, at 62 Creek Road. She and her husband, Richard O’Donnell, had three daughters of their own: Patricia “Patsy” (O’Donnell) Sargent, Ruth Ann (O’Donnell) Hurd and Kathleen O’Donnell. She had more grandchildren than she could keep track of, then great-grandchildren in the bargain. Throw in the neighbors who visited spontaneously and you had the ingredients of a pretty lively domestic life at 5 Atlantic, as Provincetown TV documented in an episode called A Night at Ruth’s.