By: Chris Jay
What, exactly, qualifies a stuffed shrimp as “Shreveport-style?” Whatever the answer the tasty crustaceans have an interesting place not only in food lore, but in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and black entrepreneurship in our nation. The robust morsels that have been butterflied, stuffed with crabmeat dressing, rolled in flour, and deep-fried can be found on menus throughout Louisiana—from Dupuy’s Seafood and Steak in Abbeville to the Mohawk Tavern Seafood Restaurant in Monroe. While the stuffed shrimp in Shreveport are larger, spicier, and more heavily breaded than most, they will be familiar to anyone who has ever eaten a deep-fried crab meat-stuffed shrimp in the South.
So it isn’t the cooking method that makes them different, it’s where you get them. Stuffed shrimp are a house specialty offered at dozens of black-owned cafés, diners, and plate lunch houses throughout Shreveport. The dish was originally popularized in Shreveport by Freeman & Harris Cafe, a black-owned restaurant founded in 1921 by first cousins Van Freeman and Jack Harris. The café likely began serving stuffed shrimp in the late 1950s, when advertisements promoting the dish as a specialty first began to run in the Shreveport Sun.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Freeman & Harris set itself apart as a rare restaurant where blacks and whites would dine together in Shreveport. It also served as a gathering place for leaders planning civil rights strategy, including a 1958 visit from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his aides. The stuffed shrimp were in large part what kept people coming back for more.
“When integration came in, Freeman and Harris had just as many white customers as they did black customers,” says state Sen. Greg Tarver, whose predominantly black District 39 encompasses much of Shreveport’s west side.
When the restaurant closed in 1994, it was believed to be the oldest continually operated, black-owned restaurant in the United States and a historic marker outside the restaurant boasted this fact. During the years leading up to the closure, several of the restaurant’s cooks departed to open their own eateries. These new restaurants all promoted a familiar menu item—stuffed shrimp.
One of the most popular restaurants spawned by Freeman & Harris was the Pete Harris Cafe, a center of black life in Shreveport until its closure in 2006. Brother’s Seafood was opened in 2004 by Orlando Chapman, the late grandson of Freeman & Harris Cafe co-owner Arthur “Scrap” Chapman. Orlando once estimated that his restaurant routinely sold more than 2,000 stuffed shrimp per day.
Perhaps most notable among Shreveport’s stuffed shrimp houses is Eddie’s Restaurant, founded by Eddie Hughes in 1978. Hughes is believed by many to have created or helped to create the original recipe for Shreveport-style stuffed shrimp while working as a cook at Freeman & Harris. While Hughes died in 1995, the restaurant is still operated by his children, including daughter Mavice and son Geno. They recently introduced a line of frozen stuffed shrimp in grocery stores.
“I think the closest that you’re going to get to the original Shreveport-style stuffed shrimp recipe would be here at Eddie’s,” says Geno. “Hopefully, it’ll continue for another 60 years. We want it to be around for generations to come.”
Today, stuffed shrimp platters are served at many black-owned eateries, lunch counters, and convenience stores in Shreveport. They are served with buttered toast and fiery tartar sauce at Eddie’s Restaurant. Across town at Brother’s Seafood, each order is accompanied by a mountain of rice and gravy. They’re also a popular item sold by vendors at local music and art festivals. The tradition continues.