Friday, September 13, 2019
By Nick Weldon, associate editor

In 1935, fried chicken history was made—not with a clever tweet or a sandwich war, but with one man, one bird, and a timer. That year, James “Buck” Fulford set a record when he killed, plucked, cooked, and ate a chicken all in one minute and 50 seconds—according to Robert Ripley, who published the story in his famous "Believe It or Not” syndicated newspaper cartoon. 

Before a crowd in Port Arthur, Texas, Fulford reportedly pulled off the stunt by a method not for the faint of heart: hanging the chicken by its feet, beheading it and waiting 40 seconds for it to die, scalding it for 10 seconds, dressing it and cutting it in 5 seconds, cooking it in hot grease for 30 seconds, and cooling it and eating it in the final 25 seconds. With the publicity boost generated by Ripley’s cartoon, Fulford, a native of Gulf Shores, Alabama, built a popular chain of fried chicken restaurants and stands across the Gulf South, including in New Orleans.

The Buck's Famous Fried Chicken location on Canal Street had a sign with a visual depiction of its founder's famous feat. (The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.4671)

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Buck’s Famous Fried Chicken joints operated all over the city. The first location, at 129 1/2 Galvez Street, opened in 1940, offering car-side service on Saturdays and Sundays and deals including 14 pieces for 85 cents. A restaurant at the corner of Teche and Newton Streets in Algiers soon followed, and when those lines got too long, Fulford opened another on Decatur Street across from Tujague’s in the French Quarter. The fried chicken entrepreneur would go on to add stores on Canal Street, Exchange Place, and in Lakeview and Gentilly, while offering live and dressed chickens and turkeys at booths in the Dryades, St. Roch, Magazine Street, and French Markets. Fulford also sold his coveted chicken, which he branded as the “Best in Dixie,” in Texas and Alabama. His Ripley record—and the original cartoon showing him holding a chicken by its feet—featured prominently in newspaper advertisements and his restaurant signage.

The French Quarter location of Buck's at Madison and Decatur can be seen on the left side of this image from around 1950. (THNOC, gift of Teena Cox Baudier and Nonie Cox Mitchell, 2012.0058.22)

Buck’s frying method involved dipping the chicken in large tubs of his secret-recipe batter and then plunging it into hot fat until it floated and had a golden-brown crust. The chicken was served with Sunrise Bread in white to-go boxes, which could be seen from the street stacked up in the restaurant’s windows.

Fulford, who also spent part of his life working aboard tugboats and commercial fruit ships, eventually sold his New Orleans restaurants and retired to his native Gulf Shores in the 1960s. He died in 1974 at age 82 having left his mark on the regional food industry—and in the annals of bizarre human accomplishments.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Historically Speaking column of the New Orleans Advocate.