Before she-crab soup shuffled onto the menus of Charleston eateries, it was frequently found bubbling in the kettles of local home cooks. The creamy concoction, studded with crab meat and roe, then spiked with sherry, was highly prized. Consider this ditty appearing in the iconic cookbook, "Charleston Receipts":
A soup to remember!
The feminine gender
of crabs is expedient -
the secret ingredient.
The flavor essential
makes men reverential
who taste this collation
and cry acclamation.
This was before the shrimp and grits craze of the 1990s, during which the no-frills Charleston pairing of "shrimps and hominy" - a dish with both Native American and Gullah roots - was gussied up by area chefs and introduced into the halls of fine dining.
From drab to fab
She-crab soup experienced a similar reincarnation, with its first life spent as partan bree, brought to South Carolina by a wave of Scotch-Irish settlers in the 1700s. Among their many contributions was their signature bisque, a Scotch broth to which cream or milk and crab was added. The combo was then thickened with rice, a technique some historians believe is a South Carolina addition, as the state was a major rice producer at the time.
Over the centuries, French and Creole influences inspired cooks to brown up roux to thicken their crab soup, while some used a simple flour or cornstarch slurry. That's where things stood in the early 1900s, when William Deas, a highly skilled African chef and butler to then-mayor, R. Goodwyn Rhett, made a pivotal decision that resulted in yet another molting for the staple dish. In the kitchen of the historic John Rutledge House, Deas injected traditional crab soup with some much-needed "oomph" by adding a glossy, red-orange cluster of crab roe to the pot, thereby refining the dish in look, taste, texture and title.
Not only did the roe give the soup a velvety orange hue, but it added body and infused it with a savory tang that offset the sweetness of the crab and sherry to prime advantage. And there's no denying "she-crab soup" sounds a bit more elegant than "he-crab soup."
Into the spotlight
The new twist found favor with the mayor and his wife, who submitted the recipe to a local newspaper. By the 1930s, the soup was widely served by area home cooks and eagerly slurped up by their dinner guests.
The path from private to public dining settings began when Deas was hired to operate the kitchen of Everett's Restaurant. He added the soup to the menu, and it soon became the eatery's most famous dish. Though his chef skills went well beyond soup-making, Deas' she-crab soup established his legacy and place in the annals of Charleston's food history.
Still a favorite
Increasingly, other restaurants developed their own interpretations of what is now a South Carolina classic. Notably, it is common for she-crab soups served up these days to be quite thick, thanks to heavier applications of flour and cream. This is more the rule than the exception, though there are plenty of chefs who successfully strike the balance between gloopy and watery.
Probably the most shocking of modern recipe deviations is the absence of its most key ingredient. Ecological efforts to protect the crab supply prohibit the capture of female crabs carrying fertilized eggs. These "berried crabs" cart their future young in "sponges" that hang from the abdomen on the outside of their bodies. Unfertilized roe, still nestled inside the female crab, are fair game, however, though harder to come by and said to be not nearly as tasty. For some chefs, it's worth going the extra mile to ensure there's some "she" in your "she-crab soup." Roe or no, you're still likely to be enamored with the official state soup of South Carolina.
Experience the best
The finest she-crab soups are silky, lightly colored and delicately spiced, and rich with lumps of sweet crab meat. Sherry might be added to the pot or served on the side for self-drizzling.
If you can secure the ingredients - especially fresh South Carolina blue crab - it's not a time-consuming dish to make, unless you're picking the crab yourself. Even then, you're likely to agree it was well worth the trouble.
For an authentic taste of South Carolina, try your hand at making a pot using the recipe below, or head to one of these establishments for some of the best she-crab soup around:
82 Queen, Charleston
Saffron Bakery Cafe, Charleston
Crave, Mount Pleasant
Sea Captain's House, Myrtle Beach
Chive Blossom, Pawleys Island
Blue Marlin, Columbia
Larkin's on the River, Greenville
Ladles, Charleston-based with multiple locations across the state
This recipe is said to be the one Deas used during his tenure at Everett's Restaurant.
1 medium onion, chopped
1 lb. white crab meat
1 qt. & 1 pt. milk
1 stick butter, divided
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Salt, to taste
1 tsp. cornstarch
¼ lb. crab roe, chopped
½ cup sherry wine
Paprika, for garnish
Saute onion over low fire in half the butter until soft but not brown. Add the crab meat and heat. Heat the milk in the top of a double boiler, but do not boil. Add the crab meat mixture and the rest of the butter to the hot milk. Season to taste with Worcestershire and sprinkle with salt. Pour a little of the milk in a cup and thicken with cornstarch, then pour into soup to thicken. Add crab roe and sherry wine. Stir together well, sprinkle a little paprika on each serving. Serve piping hot.