Few foods are more characteristic of the Virginia / Maryland area than crab. The difficulty in catching them made them a special treat for colonists, but by the early 19th century crabs were often available for purchase at markets.
This recipe for Crab Soup is often credited to the first First Lady, Martha Washington, though it does not appear in any of her cookbooks. Her Booke of Cookery includes a recipe for stewing, but nothing quite like this soup recipe. We do know that Washington had a first edition copy of Hannah Glasse’s popular The Art of Cookery (1747) – which is still in the collection at Mount Vernon. Glasse offers a recipe to “To dress a Crab” which involves stewing the crab meat with white wine, nutmeg, pepper and an egg yolk, but again, the result would not have been much like a soup.
The first references to a “Washington Crab Soup” first appear in the late 19th century. All of them are notably different from one another. But by the 1930s, the crab soup recipe was mostly standardized. I found at least four recipes from the period that are similar in ingredients and preparation. It was around this time that the recipe was added to the White House repertoire. The soup is said to have been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt and was also served during the Eisenhower administration.
It was common to make crab soup with hard boiled eggs. Fertile female crabs with their roe were highly sought for their flavor and color, but were very expensive. The flecks of yolk in the soup mimicked the presence of roe – a little bit of 19th century cookery deception.
Worcestershire sauce is a latter day addition – Lea and Perrin did not begin selling the sauce until 1838, over thirty years after the Washingtons had died. However, anchovies were often added to crab dishes – particularly in the south during the Antebellum years when the Washington Crab Soup recipes began appearing (anchovy being one of the main ingredients in Worcestershire sauce).
While this soup may not be traceable back to the First President, Washington – who was a fan of simply prepared meals and seafood – would have likely enjoyed it.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Because this is such a simple dish with so few ingredients, it helps to use the best quality available. Use the freshest milk and cream you can get your hands on. If at all possible, also try to get fresh crab. Being a lowly, underpaid graduate student living in the midwest and far from the ocean, I went with canned crab meat. While it wasn’t bad – it would have been markedly better with fresher crab. If you must use canned crab meat, get the lump meat, rather than the flaked white.
This recipe doesn’t take long to make – just a few minutes more than it takes to boil milk. Like any good chef, be sure to have all of your ingredients prepared before hand, including the hard boiled eggs.
Never rapidly boil milk. Heat it on medium to medium low, stirring frequently to prevent a skin from forming.
Don’t let the grated lemon rind or eggs put you off. The lemon flavor is subtle and gives this simple soup a bit more complexity. The eggs become part of the roux and are hardly noticeable with the crab meat – and, as mentioned above, it gives the soup a bit of color.
This is a remarkably simple and tasty soup, perfect for summers when you don’t want to spend the day over a hot stove but still want something a bit substantial. It is rare to have such a dish anymore – today, it would probably be served with creme fraiche and chives. And indeed that would be delicious. But it is also worth making as-is. Indeed, this soup would be ideal as a palate cleanser between courses.
If you wanted to add a bit more body to the soup and still be entirely appropriate to the time period, you could add fried bacon lardons, fresh sweet corn, and/or diced cooked potatoes at the point in the recipe where the crab meat is added to the milk mixture.
This recipe makes about 6 servings of soup as a meal, and probably twice as much if served as part of a multi-course meal. Serve this soup with thick sliced corn bread or oyster crackers.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and mashed
grated rind of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
4 cups fresh milk
1/2 pound cooked fresh crab meat or 1 cup canned or frozen lump crab meat
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
Combine butter and flour in a soup pot. Stir in mashed hard-boiled eggs, grated lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Bring milk almost to a boil in a saucepan. Pour it slowly into the egg mixture, stirring to combine. Add crab meat and heat through gently, for about ten minutes. Stir in cream, and bring soup back to a near boil. Remove from heat and stir in sherry and two dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Serve hot.