She-Crab Soup: Cook-off serves Lowcountry treat to the masses
At a time when society is re-examining traditional gender designations, a traditional Lowcountry delicacy is also overdue for a pronoun update – she-crab soup.
Legend has it that she-crab soup was first served during President William Howard Taft’s visit to South Carolina in 1909, and the rest is culinary history. But the creamy, crabby dish that was born in Charleston and perfected in nearby seaside villages like Pawleys Island has actually been living a bit of a lie.
It seems the “she,” which refers to the blue crab roe used in the original recipe, no longer applies as it is illegal to harvest egg-carrying females in the U.S. Instead, chefs must order expensive, imported roe or come up with their own substitute like boiled chicken egg, so the crab meat in your cup of she-crab soup is just as likely to be a “he.”
“I’ve always heard that the ‘she’ was for the crab roe, but I’ve never used it,” said Hanser House chef Heath Hanser, who grew up crabbing and selling bait on Pawleys Island’s south causeway. “Some chefs use mushrooms or carrots to duplicate the texture.
“Our recipe is the same since day one of the restaurant in 1999. It’s been in my family even longer,” Hanser said. “It’s our number one seller among our soups. We have to make it every day because so many people come in the door just for the she-crab soup.”
Hanser can’t share his family’s secret concoction beyond the basics – blue crab meat, heavy cream and dry sherry. He has good reason to be protective of the recipe. It’s a crowd-pleaser at the restaurant and a game-changer on the food-festival scene.
She-Crab Soup Cook-off
If you have spent much time in the Pawleys Island area, odds are you’ve been to been to chili cook-offs, barbecue competitions, oyster roasts and pig pickins.
But the Second Annual She-Crab Soup Cook-off (2-5 p.m., Feb. 23 at Quigley’s Next Door) is a one-of-a-kind event that celebrates one of the Lowcountry’s signature dishes.
“There’s no shortage of cook-offs and oyster events, but she-crab soup is unique,” said Ryan Holcomb, community liaison for the Saint Frances Animal Center fundraiser. “She-crab soup is indigenous to the area and it’s one of the most Southern-fied foods ever. A lot of people must like it because the first year was so successful.”
Overwhelmed by more than 500 foodies at the inaugural event, this year’s She-Crab Cook-off will expand to include an outdoor tent where 12 chefs will battle with ladles. Additional space has been made under a heated tent to accommodate the expected larger crowd, and chefs will be cooking and serving seemingly bottomless pots of their best she-crab soups.
“They really didn’t know what to expect last year,” Holcomb said. “We’re going indoor/outdoor this year. Weather permitting, it will be a nice day for some hot soup.”
‘Yes Soup for You’
Not just any soup, but a true South Carolina original. The first recipe was a knockoff of an even older turtle soup staple at the John Rutledge House Inn in Charleston. It features many of the same ingredients used by chefs today (minus the aforementioned blue crab roe). However, each contestant at the She-Crab Soup Cook-off puts their own twist on the traditional dish.
“Everybody has their own take on it,” said Hanser, disclosing one of his closely guarded secrets. “A lot of people add the sherry at the end and sort of float it on top, but we blend ours in with the other ingredients so you don’t get that shock of the sherry. I don’t know, if it’s cold Sunday some people might prefer a shot of sherry.”
Patrons can try all the entrees by purchasing 24 tickets for $20, or pick six soups to sample by buying 12 tickets for $10. Guests can vote for their favorite. (One word of advice: Don’t disqualify a sample because you find a piece of shell in your she-crab soup. That’s a good thing; at least you know the chef is working with real crab meat and not some cheap imitation).
This year’s participating restaurants include Alfresco Bistro, Buzz’s Roost, Dead Dog Saloon, Gulfstream Cafe, Harrelson’s Seafood, Inlet Affairs Catering, Natural Born Grillers, Pawley’s Raw Bar, Quigley’s Pint & Plate, Wicked Tuna, J&J Butcher Shop, Rustic Table and, of course, the defending People’s Choice champion – Hanser House.
“It’s always nice when you win, but there’s a lot more to it,” Hanser said. “I look at it as free advertising for the restaurant and a way to help out the community. (Saint Frances) does great work with the animals and we want to do our part.”
Claws for Paws
It might seem strange to other cultures that folks raise funds to save cute, cuddly critters by cooking and eating another species. But no one with all their fingers keeps a pet crab, and it’s not our fault they’re so delicious when served up in a stew.
Coincidentally, the delicacy that contributed to the dwindling supply of blue crabs has helped increase the population of the tasty crustaceans after undergoing a roe-free recipe makeover. And that updated dish is now being used to curtail the out-of-control populations of dogs and cats.
In keeping with the he/she theme, Saint Frances runs local spay and neuter programs to control stray dog and feral cat populations in the community. The animal center also works to rehabilitate sick and injured animals that the people of the Pawleys Island area are happy to support through the thrill of competition.
It’s also a win-win for hungry pooches and patrons, who purchase tickets for 2-ounce samples and vote for their favorites. A panel of celebrity judges also picks a champion, as do the kids, aka the “puppies.” But the biggest beneficiaries are the pets that receive life-saving care from the funds raised for the Saint Francis Animal Center.
“We hold events like this all the time and they’re great fundraisers for us,” Holcomb said. “The people, businesses and sponsors of Pawleys Island have been very supportive of the work we’re doing.”
What better way to support the cause than by enjoying live music and camaraderie while feasting on a dozen different versions of Pawleys Island’s most popular staples – she-crab soup? It’s OK to forget the pronouns and simply chow down.