In Charleston, the story of Mr. William Deas and his invention of She Crab Soup is the legendary stuff of history and tour guide fake-lore. Most everyone knows or has heard the fabled account of how Mr. Deas, the butler at the historic John Rutledge Inn, invented our iconic soup to welcome President William Howard Taft.
As a tour guide, I used to recount the tale of how Deas, the butler for former Charleston Mayor Goodwyn Rhett, improvised the soup at the 11th hour with the addition of crab roe. The punchline was always that the soup had been invented by Rhett’s butler.
My friend John Martin Taylor makes the assertion that the soup was originally a variation on the Scottish soup partan-bree, though much less thick than the goop so frequently pawned on visitors to our city. Inspired by my love of Charleston and my background as a formerly licensed tour guide, I rolled up my sleeves and dug into my Lowcountry books, cross referencing on the internet. I was determined to drill down and sift the granules for the most historically accurate rendition I could find.
From what I have been able to gather, Mr. Deas was indeed a butler at the John Rutledge house, and does indeed seem to be responsible for the addition of the crab roe. I double checked against Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife, written in 1847, but was unable to find any mention of crab soup of any kind. A Savannah recipe from 1904 does feature sherry, though not the roe, which would seem to lend some truth to our locality. It was then that I discovered a reference in Joe Dabney’s Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking to 200 Years of Charleston Cooking by Blanche S. Rhett.
Rhett? DOH!!! So I dug into the text and on page 2 found that Mr. Deas did only lightly thicken his soup with just 1 teaspoon of flour to 2 1/2 cups of milk and cream. His recipe was simple and I could taste the flavors as I read through the recipe. I read on, learning that Mr. Deas was also apparently an accomplished tenor in a spiritual quartet, that he never seemed to hurry. And as I turned the page, I had one of those epiphany moments I imagine scholars discovering some lost minor concerto by Mozart must have. On page 4, staring me square in the face, was a recipe for shrimp soup, previously unheard of, by Mr. William Deas himself.
Inspired, I continued digging for any details on the life of William Deas and found that he eventually made his way to Everett’s restaurant on Cannon St, where he ran the kitchen until his death in 1961. Robert Moss states that the Presson’s, who owned Everett’s, were so enamored of Mr. Deas that they named a dining room after him, complete with a mural of his cabin on Secessionville Creek on James Island, most likely near where I live today.
So I may not have come up with the most accurate version of She Crab Soup, as it by now seems to have taken on a life of its own, as food and language are want to do. What I found were a few more details in the life of a man deserving of so much more than the punchline of a tour spiel. And a gift from Mr. Deas himself – a recipe for shrimp soup.
Thank you, Mr. Deas.
Shrimp Soup 1
2 cups cooked, shelled shrimp
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 quart milk
1 cup cream
1 tablespoon sherry seasoning
Put the shrimp through the meat grinder. Turn into a double boiler and add the butter, onion and black pepper. Simmer for five minutes, add the milk gradually, stirring constantly, and then add the cream. Salt to taste, using less salt than usual if a salted sherry is to be added. Cook for half an hour, stirring occassionally. Add the sherry just before serving.
This shrimp soup resembles a lobster stew more than anything else we could think of and is a medium thick soup. Without the sherry it would be a fine soup for the children, while the addition of the sherry makes the soup just the thing to serve for a “party” luncheon. The flavor is both delicate and unusual. Six generous servings.
– William’s Recipe