On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, I fell in love with their Low Country staple – she crab soup. Every menu in Savannah has it, and it’s the signature dish of their coastal neighbor-to-the north, Charleston, South Carolina, where the dish was invented. The soup is a thick cross between bisque and chowder, made with the freshest Atlantic blue crab meat, heavy cream, fish stock, sherry, shallots, onions, and a variety of seasonings like mace (nutmeg). Traditional versions have the orange roe of the she-crab, which gave it the name. You can tell by the orange tinge of the soup whether or not is has the crab roe included.
I tasted this beloved bisque in two places while in Savannah – at Crystal Beer Parlor and the Pirates house. At the 82 year old Savannah institution, Crystal Beer Parlor, the soup had a grey hue, and thus was without the crab roe, but was thick with lots of crab. At the Pirates House, on the other hand, it did have the orange hue and was much richer in flavor. Both were fantastic just for the freshness and flavor of the she- crab, probably harvested within the last 24 hours. At the Crystal Beer Parlor, the waitress warned me – “We use fresh crab meat, honey, so be careful – you will find bits of shell in the soup.” So an unexpected shell crunch is the indicator of fresh crab.
Unlike chowder in the north, which is served with starchy oyster crackers, if anything, she crab soup is served with buttery club crackers or, at higher end places, with little cheese biscuits the size of oyster crackers. There is also usually a bottle of good sherry to sprinkle on the soup for added richness.
Low Country food historians credit the early north eastern Scottish settlers who arrived in the Carolinas in the early 1700s with bringing their famous seafood bisque recipes called partan bree, a crab and rice soup, to the area.
I fell in love even more with the dish when I found its connection to our local super-sized President, William Howard Taft. Taft visited the mayor of Charleston, R. Goodwyn Rhett, in 1909 at his historic house, the John Ruttledge House. Taft was a huge fan of turtle soup and brought his own cook who knew the recipe to the White House. In elegant society, turtle soup, crab soup, or oyster soups were the accepted start of a sumptuous banquet. Knowing that Taft was a foodie, Rhett asked his butler and cook, William Deas to amp up the pale crab soup they usually served. So, the butler added orange-hued crab roe to give color and add to the flavor, thus inventing the delicacy now served from South Carolina Low Country to the Georgia coast. With the abundance of blue crab available in the coastal Carolina waters, this soup became very popular.
The amped up she crab soup was a hit with Taft. Apparently he liked it so much he requested the recipe to include on the White House’s menu. So if it wasn’t for our Cincinnati born plump President, Savannah and Charleston may have never have had their beloved she crab soup available everywhere.
President Taft in Columbia, SC, 1909