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Where Y’Eat: Famous For Fried Chicken, The Al Copeland Legend Has A New Mission

A portrait of the late Al Copeland hangs in a Copeland's of New Orleans restaurant.
Ian McNulty
A portrait of the late Al Copeland hangs in a Copeland's of New Orleans restaurant.

New Orleans food legends never die. Now, the legend of Al Copeland is helping people live.

Al Copeland was the famously swashbuckling founder of the Popeyes fried chicken brand, the poor kid from the housing project who built an empire on New Orleans flavor and set a new benchmark for living large.

This spring marked 10 years since he died from a rare form of cancer. This week brings back an annual event from his family that honors his legacy by raising money for cancer research. Of course, there’s fried chicken too.

The Al Copeland Foundation Chicken Jam goes down at the UNO Lakefront Arena on Friday. It benefits the LSU cancer center, which is developing new cancer treatments that weren’t available when Al Copeland died.

Fried chicken might sound like an improbable ally in the cancer fight. But then, Al Copeland’s story has been improbable throughout.

He opened one little fried chicken joint in Arabi back in 1972. This became Popeyes and eventually he had 700 locations churning out spicy chicken and New Orleans red beans.

As the riches flowed, a lifestyle of flash and glitz unspooled, from the Vegas-meets-storybook weddings (and high profile divorces) to an annual Christmas light display that required police to direct traffic (and drew a lawsuit from neighbors).

Al Copeland pounced on life like a pro wrestler off the top turnbuckle. The man had his detractors. But through his successes and excesses and showmanship, Al Copeland became one of the indelible characters of modern New Orleans.

Popeyes was long ago taken over by larger companies, but the Copeland family still runs other restaurants across the region. They’re still cooking up new recipes in the top floor test kitchen of their Copeland Tower in Metairie.

And this week they’re raising money at the Chicken Jam for LSU’s cancer research.

What if it’s possible for fried chicken to help find a cure for cancer? Now that’s something as audacious as any exploit Al Copeland ever pulled off.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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