History of the Dish
Long before it made its way onto the menus of restaurants all over South Carolina, she-crab soup was mostly found in the kitchens of private homes.
It originally came on the scene in South Carolina in the 1700s, when Scotch-Irish settlers would make a bisque using milk or cream, crab and rice. Some historians say rice was added to the recipe, since the state was a major rice producer during that era. Over time, French and Creole influences tweaked the original recipe, adding various ingredients to give it a thicker consistency.
In the early 1900s, William Deas, chef and butler to then Charleston Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett, added a cluster of crab roe to the recipe, which completely altered the look, taste and texture of the dish.
Adding the roe is what turned this traditional Scotch-Irish dish into what is now known as she-crab soup. The roe is also what gave she-crab soup its name, since roe can only be collected from female crabs. Not only does the roe give the soup an orange hue, it also adds body and infuses the dish with a savory tang that offsets the sweetness of the crab and sherry.
By the 1930s, Deas' version of she-crab soup gained wide popularity among home cooks in the area. The transition from home to public consumption took place when Deas began working in a restaurant. The soup was added to the menu and quickly became the most popular item.
Over time, various restaurants and chefs have added their own spin to what is now considered to be a treasured piece of South Carolina's past.
2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups half-and-half cream
4 teaspoons finely grated onion
¾ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and white pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon ground mace
¼ teaspoon red (cayenne) pepper
¼ teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 ½ pounds flaked blue crab meat*
¼ cup crab roe**
3 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon finely chopped, fresh parsley leaves
*If you live in parts of the country where blue crab is not available, other types of crabmeat, such as Dungeness, snow, king or rock crab may be substituted.
**Crab roe are the eggs harvested from the female blue crab. The addition of crab roe tints the soup orange and enriches its crabby flavor. Two crumbled, hard-cooked egg yolks may be substituted for the crab roe.
In a large, heavy pot over low heat, melt butter, then add flour and blend until smooth. Slowly add milk and half-and-half cream, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook until thickened. Add onion, Worcestershire sauce, salt, white pepper, mace, cayenne pepper and lemon zest. Bring just to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low, add crab meat and crab roe (or crumbled hard-cooked egg yolks) and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. (If the soup appears about to boil, remove the pan from the heat for a minute or so, then return.) Remove from heat and add sherry, stirring to mix. Let sit for 3 to 4 minutes before serving.
To serve, pour the soup into individual heated soup bowls, dividing the crabmeat and roe equally into each bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.