It sounded easy: a feature on she-crab soup. Brush up on the history, round up a list of likely restaurants, and eat at four or five of them for a little compare and contrast on a Charleston classic.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
First, there were the sneers from the other "serious local eater" types I told about the project. "She-crab soup?" they said. "Really?" The consensus seemed to be that, like shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes, she-crab soup was a middle-brow cliché best left to the tourists.
But, shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes are Johnny-come-latelies. Shrimp and grits are a humble breakfast food that put on restaurant airs in the 1980s. Fried green tomatoes are outright imposters, virtually unknown on Southern tables until the 1992 movie Fried Green Tomatoes made them an overnight star.
She-crab soup, on the other hand, has genuine history. In 1925, American Motorist cited it along with Planter's punch and peach leather candy as the three culinary specialties of Charleston. Perdita's, for years considered the only "gourmet" restaurant in town, was famous for the soup, as were four other Charleston restaurants included in the 1959 Duncan Hines Adventures in Good Eating guidebook: Cavallero, Everett's, the Frosty Manor, and the Francis Marion Hotel's restaurant. How much more authenticity do you need?
Undaunted by foodie skepticism, I hit the streets downtown, intent on taking in as many bowls of she-crab soup as I could in a single evening.
Anson seemed a promising place to start. The restaurant prides itself on capturing the best of Lowcountry heritage, and everything inside — from the cabinetry to the antique paintings — is old and elegant.
Their she-crab soup is a textbook example of the contemporary restaurant recipe. It has a creamy white base, sort of a cross between a bisque and a chowder, into which is blended crab meat and fine bits of onion, celery, and herbs. Sherry is the classic flavoring, and while many restaurants mix it in during cooking, Anson is in the minority that offer it on the side, letting diners adjust the sweetness to their own tastes. I ate mine with a cold Palmetto ale, then headed out into the summer heat.
Next up was Hank's, two blocks down the Market. The white-coated waiters serve fresh seafood with classic fish-house sides in the dining room, but she-crab soup is the classic Charleston tourist dish, so I wanted the full tourist experience. And that means a seat at the big community table by the bar.
The community table crowd tends toward couples in their 50s and 60s. They come from all over, but the accents tend to be southern, and there are plenty of Braves caps and Harley-Davidson T-shirts. The most common topics of conversation are meals eaten somewhere else. ("When we were down in Miami, we had the most incredible stone crabs!") Occasionally, someone finds time to rave about Hank's, too: "If you don't get the she-crab soup here," one gentleman told his wife, "you're just plain crazy."
Which was endorsement enough for me. I ordered a bowl and found it thick and smooth but also very sweet — by far the sweetest I've had in Charleston. Sherry is the explanation. Chef Frank McMahon's recipe calls for two full cups for a gallon of soup. He starts with a roux cooked with onion and celery, then adds sherry, white wine, crab stock, and heavy cream. After simmering it for an hour and a half, McMahon adds a little crab roe and then purees the whole thing, resulting in a velvety smooth soup. Big lumps of crabmeat are added right before serving, an approach I applaud since it creates surprising bursts of flavor as you work your way through the bowl.
The sweet soup is very filling, a fact brought home to me as I stepped out into the June heat and made my way along the Market amid the florid smells of carriage horses. My fullness increased with every step, and I found myself wobbling a little. Okay, I thought, maybe sampling all of Charleston's she-crab soup in one day isn't the wisest approach. I mopped the sweat from my forehead and reformulated the plan.
I needed some history.
The official story, repeated by countless tour guides as they steer horse-drawn carriages past the John Rutledge House on Broad Street, is that she-crab soup was invented by William Deas, the butler for Mayor Robert Goodwyn Rhett, who purchased the house in 1902. The Rhetts entertained President William Howard Taft there on several occasions. During one of those dinners, Deas was supposedly asked by Mrs. Rhett to dress up his normally pale crab soup, so he added orange crab eggs.
This story has the appeal of a snappy punchline ("So, you might say she-crab soup was invented by Rhett's butler!"), but the whole "last-minute" angle rings hollow. After all, if you were entertaining the president of the United States in your home, would you want the cook to serve something he'd never made before?
I turned to Mike Coker, the visual materials curator at the South Carolina Historical Society and erstwhile champion of getting she-crab named the South Carolina state soup. Coker confirmed that Deas had indeed perfected the classic recipe while working for the Rhett family, but the part about President Taft was likely apocryphal. (Coker has interviewed Deas' son Alonzo, who couldn't recall his father's ever mentioning Taft, and neither could Deas' former restaurant coworkers.)
Deas probably didn't invent she-crab soup out of whole cloth. John Martin Taylor, Lowcountry author and culinary historian, hypothesizes that it's a variant of partan bree, a traditional Scottish soup made with crab meat and cream and thickened with rice. The addition of crab roe, however, seems to be Deas' innovation.
By the 1930s, Deas' soup was a fixture in the dining rooms of private Charleston homes, and it soon became a restaurant staple, too. Just before World War II, after working in several other downtown homes, Deas was hired to run the kitchen at Everett's Restaurant on Cannon Street. He worked there until his death in 1961, making Everett's famous for Deas she-crab soup and leaving as his legacy the city's most noted culinary specialty.
She-crab soup is not just for fine-dining menus. Saffron Bakery Café may well be the only place on the planet where you can get a cup of she-crab soup, a loaf of sourdough, and a hookah. Their soup has a peachy color and the zip of cayenne. The finely shredded crab meat and a generous dose of sherry give it a smooth, caramel sweetness, and it's every bit as good as what the upscale joints serve.
I didn't want to limit myself to the peninsula, so I drove north up Highway 17 to the Seewee Restaurant to try its highly praised version. Perhaps the thickest in the county, and the spiciest, too, it comes to the table with a sprinkling of paprika over the top and a shot of sherry on the side. Like Hank's, Seewee adds crab in big lumps rather than blending it in. And the cup is so rich, it's almost a meal unto itself.
Still I was missing something. I had envisioned creating a taxonomy of local she-crab soup, but I was struggling to find enough distinguishing features. There was big lump meat vs. blended shreds, and sherry in the soup vs. sherry on the side, but apart from this, the soups were all fairly similar. And, frankly, none seemed quite remarkable enough to justify she-crab soup's lofty stature as a Lowcountry delicacy.
Maybe something had been lost from the original. Everett's is long gone — it closed in the 1970s — but I thought I might find an authentic Deas' version at Virginia's on King, whose menu cites the William Deas recipe. But, when the soup arrived, it was pretty much the same as the rest. Deas' version has crab blended in, but Virginia's takes the lump route. The big chunks give a great flavor explosion when you hit them, but the soup itself is mild, thick, and rather bland. A closer reading of Virginia's menu shows that it doesn't actually claim they use Deas' recipe; it just credits him with inventing the soup. My mistake.
Something wasn't right. Old newspaper accounts of she-crab soup note a tanginess and tartness that they attribute to crab roe. All the soups I had sampled clearly contained roe, but none could remotely be described as "tangy."
And then there was "the glop factor." Almost every bowl I tried was very thick, some almost viscous enough to stand a spoon up in. There's a simple explanation: flour.
Most local restaurants start off with a roux — a blend of butter and flour that thickens the soup. The more flour used, the thicker the soup. Hank's has a liquid-to-flour ratio of 17:1 (136 ounces of liquid thickened with 1 cup of flour). Magnolia's and 82 Queen weigh in around 8:1.
This is way more flour than the two published versions of Deas' recipe. The first appeared in 1930 in Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking, compiled by none other than Mayor Rhett's wife, Blanche. The other was printed in a 1960s Everett's promotional brochure. Both call for only minimal thickening — just one teaspoon of flour or cornstarch for two and a half cups of liquid, a 120:1 ratio.
Could it be that the "classic" recipes in local restaurants have become so glopped-up with flour that they scarcely resemble the original?
Facts were required. I needed crab roe.
It took some doing, but I was finally able to track down a lone one-pound container of blue crab roe in the back of the freezer at Mt. Pleasant Seafood. "You making she-crab soup?" the counterman asked me. I said I was. "Whatever your recipe tells you to use, double it."
Good advice, but I ignored it, since I was trying to follow Deas' formula as closely as possible. That meant I also needed to acquire a double boiler, which is called for by both Deas versions but, oddly enough, not by more recent recipes.
You put crab meat, roe, onion, black pepper, and butter in the top of the boiler and sauté them for five minutes until everything is soft and starting to blend. Next, add milk, cream, a dash of Worcestershire, and a little sherry, then thicken with a flour slurry and simmer for 30 minutes. The Deas recipe is sparing with the sherry (one tablespoon) and even skimpier with the flour, using just a single teaspoon.
The roe proved to be remarkable stuff — the concentrated essence of crab, far stronger than the meat itself. It gave the finished soup a deep crabby flavor. But the Deas version was too thin, and rather on the plain side, even with a second dose of sherry.
It came down to the crab roe. The only roe sold today is unfertilized — the powdery orange eggs found inside the shells of ordinary female crabs. This is different from fertilized eggs, which the female extrudes after mating, forming a large "sponge" that hangs beneath her abdomen. It's illegal today to take berried crabs, so immature roe is all that's available.
The evidence suggests that old-style she-crab soup was made with mature eggs. Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking notes that the eggs "give a delicious, glutinous quality to the soup," and that they are impossible to get "except in the laying season." Numerous other old accounts cite the roe's tartness and tanginess. My immature roe imparted a powerful crab flavor, but there was neither a discernible glutinous effect nor any tart or tangy qualities.
I was starting to understand why today's chefs load up their soups with flour and pour on the sherry with a liberal hand. Immature roe isn't enough. Even before I finished my first homemade cup, I was already formulating enhancements. A little more spice — cayenne, perhaps — and definitely more sherry. Up the flour to two tablespoons to add body and upgrade to lump crab like Hank's and Virginia's.
Fortunately, some talented cooks have already done the hard work, like Landen Ganstrom at Crave Kitchen & Cocktails in Mt. Pleasant. An old warhorse like she-crab soup isn't an obvious choice for Crave's American fusion menu. Owner Chris Dolan told me including it was Ganstrom's idea, and Ganstrom says it was Dolan's. In any event, the two agreed that if they were going to do a she-crab soup they needed to "blow it out of the park."
Ganstrom is from Kansas and had never made she-crab soup, but he was familiar with lobster bisque from working at resorts up north. He researched old recipes, blended them with bisque techniques, and threw in a few contemporary twists.
Ganstrom starts with roe, sautéing it in butter to release the crab flavor, then adding flour to make a roux. He includes the traditional milk, cream, and sherry, but the finished soup has a smooth, bisque-like texture that's pleasingly low on the glop factor. At serving, two big lumps of crab meat are placed on thin rafts of crouton floating on top of the soup, and the whole thing is drizzled with chile oil and crème fraîche.
The presentation would make the Preservation Society cringe, but it's spicy and flavorful and one hell of a good soup.
Many of Charleston's chefs are not big fans of she-crab soup. Several I spoke with admitted they include it on their menus only because it's demanded by their owners and their customers, many of whom are out-of-towners. Churning out gallon after gallon of a heavy, cream-based soup doesn't exactly stretch the culinary chops of ambitious young chefs.
Old Charlestonians often sneer at today's versions of the soup, too, claiming that nothing on restaurant menus today compares with the way it used to taste, presumably back in the wide-open mature roe days.
But that doesn't mean we should forget about it altogether. After all, she-crab soup has been a signature Charleston dish for almost a century. In the proper hands and with sufficient creative license, the combination of rich cream, sweet sherry, and tender lump crab meat can transcend the run-of-the-mill versions and become the perfect starter for a classic Lowcountry meal.
She-crab soup provides a lesson about our relationship with the past. We shouldn't sneer at the old ways, but neither should we be so bound by them that we end up with something stilted — the glopped-up, overly sweet tourist version of the way things used to be. It's far better to take inspiration from the past but keep looking forward, using modern taste and sensibilities to improve on the dish.
It works for she-crab soup, at least.