Local Flavor: Charleston’s She-Crab Soup

She-crab soup might not look like much. But the history of this bisque-chowder hybrid is as rich as that of the city from which it hails.

Before Charleston restaurants served up endless bowls of shrimp and stone-ground grits, John Martin Taylor—better known as Hoppin’ John, a nod to another beloved Southern staple—elevated South Carolina’s Lowcountry cuisine to high art with a scholarly cookbook in the early 1990s, digging up recipes thought to be lost long since the Civil War.

In Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, the author traced Charleston’s famous first course to its tartan roots, revealing she-crab soup to be a variation on partan bree—the result of an influx of Scottish immigrants to the region in America’s early years. “Scottish cookbooks, common among the inventories of the planter class, included recipes for the soup thickened with rice,” he told me via email.

Though the key ingredients in South Carolina’s unique but unassuming starter—succulent meat from Atlantic blue crabs, fish stock, cream, spices, and a dash of fine dry sherry—were well in place by the end of the 19th century, the signature flourish of today’s bowl of she-crab soup can be traced to another twist of fate.

As legend has it, Charleston Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett, due to entertain then-President William Howard Taft at his Broad Street home, tasked his butler, William Deas, with fancying up the relatively bland local soup for his honored guest.

Deas added a dollop of roe from mature female crabs—which lend Charleston’s now-famous dish its name—for color and added flavor, shoring up the modern incarnation of this Lowcountry treat.

Here are a few standout places where travelers can taste a bit of history:

  • Hominy Grill: Owner and James Beard Award-winning chef Robert Stehling serves what he describes as “the food we wished our grandmothers would cook” to locals and visitors alike at his relaxed Rutledge Avenue eatery.
  • S.N.O.B: Historically, Charleston’s well-heeled denizens resided south of Broad Street. This bustling fine-dining establishment issued a playful jab at local socialites with its name, a cheeky acronym that refers to its less-coveted neighborhood, “Slightly North of Broad.”
  • HUSK: This restaurant enlivens traditional Lowcountry cuisine with regionally sourced ingredients on its constantly changing menu, providing a destination for foodies near and far.
  • 82 Queen: Located in a 17th-century building in Charleston’s historic French Quarter, 82 Queen is consistently cited as the place to find the best she-crab soup in town by locals. Not visiting Charleston soon enough? Try out 82 Queen’s celebrated recipe at home.

Christine Blau is a researcher at National Geographic Traveler magazine on a lifelong hunt for authentic local flavor. Follow Christine on Twitter @Chris_Blau and on Instagram @ChristineBlau

> Related: