Local legend traces the origin of Charleston's iconic she-crab soup to a presidential dinner served at the home of Mayor Rhett in the early 1900s. Requested to create a special dish for the occasion, Rhett's genius butler conjured up a rich sherry-infused alchemy of freshly harvested crabmeat and cream. He then stirred in the coral-colored roe of the female crabs, which added a pale hue and umami depth of flavor that was way ahead of its time. In recent years, ecological efforts to preserve the supply of crabs banned the harvesting of roe from egg-bearing female crabs who carry the roe outside their shells. Only female crabs with the roe on the inside may be used. In Charleston Receipts, the spiral-bound classic published by the Junior League in 1950, Mrs. Henry Church suggests crumbling the yolks of hard-cooked eggs in the bottom of the soup plate as a substitute.
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 quart whole milk
1 pound fresh lump crabmeat
1/4 pound crab roe or hard-cooked egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
2 cups half-and-half
1/2 cup sherry wine
1 tablespoon table salt
Garnishes: paprika, fresh parsley
How to Make It
Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan over low; add the onion, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes or until softened.
IN A DOUBLE BOILER: Pour water to a depth of the 1 inch in the bottom of a double boiler over medium heat; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer; place remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in top of the double boiler over simmering water. Cook until melted. Whisk in the flour.
IN A DUTCH OVEN: Melt butter over medium heat and whisk in flour.
Stir in the onion and milk, stirring constantly until blended. Stir in the crabmeat and roe (or yolk); add pepper and mace, and cook 20 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half. Remove from heat, and stir in the wine and salt.