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 cuisine roots - was gussied up by area chefs and introduced into the halls of fine dining.
History of She Crab Soup
She crab soup experienced a similar reincarnation, with its first life spent as partan bree, a broth with added cream and crab, brought to South Carolina by a wave of Scotch-Irish settlers in the 1700s. 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.
In the early 1900s, William Deas, a highly skilled African chef and butler for then-Charleston mayor, R. Goodwyn Rhett, tweaked a pot of crab soup in the kitchen of the historic John Rutledge House by adding a glossy, red-orange cluster of crab roe to the pot. 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.
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.
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 and a Charleston classic.
South Carolina's Favorite Soup
Increasingly, other restaurants developed their own interpretations of what is now a South Carolina classic.
Ecological efforts to protect the crab supply, however, prohibit the capture of female crabs carrying fertilized eggs. Unfertilized roe, still nestled inside the female crab, are fair game though harder to come by and said to be not nearly as tasty. Learn more here about crabbing in South Carolina.
For some chefs, it's worth going the extra mile to ensure there's some "she" in your soup. Roe or no, you're still likely to be enamored with the official state soup of South Carolina.