The restaurant industry veteran and social media personality was born in Shreveport, and has fond memories of Freeman and Harris Café.
I’ve been talking to Shreveporters about stuffed shrimp for thirteen years now, since a 2009 conversation with Chef Orlando Chapman sparked my interest in the topic. Over the years, I have been grateful for the opportunity to sporadically interview restaurateurs, consumers, line cooks, home cooks, tour guides, tartar sauce bottlers, and even two state senators—all on the topic of stuffed shrimp in Shreveport. My research into the iconic restaurant Freeman and Harris Café and the origins of Shreveport-style stuffed shrimp took a new form over the course of the past year: a ninety-six-page masters thesis entitled Stuffed Shrimp as a Folk Tradition in Shreveport, Louisiana. Seeking new perspectives, I conducted ten new, long-form interviews on the topic of stuffed shrimp while drafting my thesis.
One of those new interviews was with Derek Kirk, a twenty-five-year veteran of the restaurant industry and social media influencer better known to his followers as @SoulPhoodie. With more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and approximately 100,000 more across Facebook and Instagram, Kirk—who also co-hosts the Food52 podcast Black and Highly Flavored—is a popular observer of Black culinary culture in the U.S. He also produces a popular line of merch inspired by Black culinaria. Kirk spent many summers of his youth in Shreveport, where he ate barbecue from Silver Moon Barbecue and stuffed shrimp from Freeman and and Harris Café while visiting his mother’s family. I learned about Kirk’s connection to Shreveport by listening to his June 2020 appearance on the A Hungry Society podcast, which you can find here.
I spoke with Mr. Kirk by phone in late October, in the midst of writing the final chapter of my thesis on stuffed shrimp. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Chris Jay: What’s your connection to Shreveport, exactly?
Derek Kirk: My mother was born and raised in Shreveport, and she ended up going to Dillard in New Orleans. For graduate school, she went to Indiana University. My dad grew up in Nashville, and they met in grad school. They got married, and one of my dad’s first jobs was as a professor at Grambling. My mom moved back in with her parents in Shreveport for a time while my dad taught at Grambling. I was born in Shreveport.
CJ: Do you remember eating stuffed shrimp during your time in Shreveport?
DK: Two of my earliest food memories involve restaurants in Shreveport. One of them was Silver Moon Barbecue. I can remember vividly going there as a child with my grandfather and my dad. I remember the lights, the faint hint of smoke in the air. They say smell and taste are the strongest senses that imprint in a child’s mind. I remember vividly the grease stains on the Silver Moon Barbecue bag. My grandfather was a relatively prominent barber in Shreveport, and I remember my mom telling the story that he was very close friends with the proprietors of Freeman & Harris, and he would go there once or twice per week to have lunch. My grandfather’s barber shop was on “the Avenue.”
CJ: Did you ever get the stuffed shrimp from Freeman and Harris Café?
DK: I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen, sitting at her table and eating the stuffed shrimp. They were like little torpedoes. I remember vividly the shape of them, and they were huge. They were spicy hot, and I just remember devouring them. That was my first experience with them. When my grandfather passed away, in ‘77 or ‘78, I was a teenager. We stayed in a hotel, and when my dad came home one night, he brought us stuffed shrimp. My sister and I talk about that experience to this day. They were like these long, little torpedoes, and they were so flavorful. We were staying in downtown Shreveport, and it was just my sister and I, and I remember us sitting around, enjoying these shrimp. And for whatever reason, that imprinted into my mind. It was something that we always knew about, Freeman & Harris and the stuffed shrimp. It’s such a unique product. I am influenced by my childhood memories of it.
CJ: Have you ever come across them anywhere outside of Shreveport, in your travels and work?
DK: I have never seen anything like it anywhere else. Not the combination of flavor, unique shape, and size.
CJ: What do you do these days, when you have a craving for Shreveport-style stuffed shrimp?
DK: The last time that I visited Shreveport, in January of ‘98 or ‘99, my mom didn’t eat seafood, and we wanted stuffed shrimp. She called somebody and found out that [Freeman and Harris Café] had closed. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to recapture that memory from twenty years earlier. That sparked me to research and find a copycat recipe. I have two copycat recipes, and I’ve got one now that I make once a year or so. Does it actually represent that experience that I had as a teen? I doubt it, but I still like them.
CJ: I’ve been doing a lot of research into the origins of the recipe. Do you believe “who did it first” is an important question to ask, in this case? In other words, does it matter who created the recipe? Or does a folk tradition like this kind of belong to its community?
DK: I think it matters who did it first, in some respects. This continues to be an exclusively Black-owned restaurant tradition in Shreveport. Look at what happened with Nashville Hot Chicken. My dad grew up in Nashville, so we spent a lot of time in the Nashville area. Prince’s was not a place that we went to. I discovered Prince’s when I got into the restaurant business in the 1990s, and I thought: “This woman has this unique product here, why doesn’t she try to capitalize on it?” For whatever reason, she decided not to, but others have come in in the last decade or so and co-opted her unique, compelling product that the Prince family created, and now it is ubiquitous. I was at a grocery store today and saw Nashville hot mustard! It’s everywhere now, and she hasn’t received the credit and recognition for being the originator of that project. I see the stuffed shrimp the same way, even though it has not exploded in the same way as the Nashville hot chicken.
Follow @soulphoodie on Instagram and Twitter.