She-crab soup is uniquely Charlestonian—a silky, seafood chowder with a European heritage. The dish helped put Charleston on the regional culinary road map as surely as Philadelphia’s cheese steaks or Chicago’s deep-dish pizzas did the same for those locations. Shrimp and grits are perhaps the only items appearing more often on the menus of Charleston restaurants than this elegant appetizer. “There’s nothing quite like it on this side of the Atlantic,” said John Martin Taylor (known as “Hoppin’ John”), cookbook author and the notorious arbiter of lowcountry cuisine. Although some Charleston-area restaurateurs bemoan it as nothing more than a novelty item slurped by the gallon by gullible tourists, Taylor maintained that the soup is an example of a delightfully distinct regional cuisine that at times has been bred into mediocrity by chefs taking shortcuts such as thickening it with flour (“wallpaper paste,” he says with disgust).
Food historians believe that she-crab soup is based on the Scottish seafood bisque partan bree, which was brought by settlers to the New World in the early 1700s and was localized in Charleston with the addition of boiled and pureed long-grain rice and the roe of blue crabs. During a 1909 visit to Charleston, President William Howard Taft supped on she-crab soup at the home of Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett. The recipe for the soup calls for the meat of a dozen female crabs, fish stock, milk, spices, and heavy cream. A blending of the New and Old Worlds and served hot, she-crab soup’s finishing touches often include a sprinkling of the orange crab eggs across the surface of the thick soup, followed by a dollop of a fine, dry sherry such as amontillado.