The man who ate Lincoln Rd returned to eat more of it the other day, because three new food joints have opened since I ended my year-long quest to eat at every one of the 55 food places on that golden mile in view of the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland.
I had to try them out. I needed to collect the set. And so once again I stepped back on to the street which I paced, back and forth, for an entire year, filling my face with fat and salt and chicken, and lovin' it, mostly.
I wrote about the quest in weekly instalments for the Herald. A book based on the series will be launched at the Lincoln Rd Coffee Club on Monday night. One of the things I learned about my journey is that a franchise is only as good as the franchisee; and the guv'nor at the Lincoln Rd Coffee Club, Saten Shama, had turned his franchise into something elegant and special, reflecting his own character and drive. I'm hoping his charisma rubs off on the book, which is called - you don't say - The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd. Yours for $25, or buy a jumbo family pack of two copies for $50.
It's about junk food, also the human condition. The way to a nation's heart is through its stomach; the reason I came up with the idea of the journey was that I thought I might gain some understanding of who we are now and what's become of us by immersing myself in the crucial modern experience of eating a lot of fat and salt and chicken. McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Sal's ... Lincoln Rd has the lot, one fast-food franchise after another packed into a 3km stretch.
It was a lot of fun eating and writing about eating. Mostly the junk food was great but sometimes it was diabolical, and now and then I felt I was stuck in a circle of hell and that I'd never finish, but Herald readers kept my spirits up with encouraging emails and comments. They'd also come up to me on the street and gasp: "I know who you are - you're The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd." It was a small but unique claim to fame.
The series ran from summer to summer, and when I got to the end, at McDonald's, the epic quest was over, and so was my character of the man who ate Lincoln Rd. His work was done. He'd eaten himself silly.
He was like an alter-ego, a greedy pig snuffling along Lincoln Rd every week for a year - a split personality may be damaging to your mental health, but I was kind of sad to see him go when he walked into the sunset that late afternoon at McDonald's just before Christmas.
The week after Christmas I thought: whatever happened to that guy? And then: is it possible that his collected adventures, if given shape and 10,000 extra words in the form of footnotes, might make a coherent and even quite good book? I got to work. I called for help. Josh Drummond of Mt Roskill drew a garish cover that makes me hungry every time I look at it, and New Zealand's best indexer, Diane Lowther of Hamilton, crafted what may be one of the strangest indexes ever published.
I had seen the passing of the seasons in my year-long quest. Much of my writing about it was comedy but in fact I thought a lot about death.
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Cool book. But the title claimed I'd eaten an entire street; what about the three new food joints? Didn't I have a moral duty to slip on the robes sort of thing as worn by my slobbering alter-ego, and resurrect the man who ate Lincoln Rd? I took a deep breath, and took the plunge.
It felt strange to be back. I thought: I've eaten everything in sight. I caught the 130 bus from Henderson and got off opposite the hospital (terrible food), and left invitations to the launch with the managers or owners of my favourite food joints.
It was good to see Narain Sami and his glamorous wife Grace at Indian Green Garden, and Pita Pit supremo Steve Mason, who is a kind of Jedi master of fast food; he knows exactly what's going on along Lincoln Rd, and also gives a lot of thought to trends and patterns.
I said, "What is the future, master?"
He said, "Do you hear that sound?"
We were sitting near the kitchen.
He said, "That's someone chopping up tomatoes on a board. An automaton could be doing that. A robot. That's the future."
He said he'd come to the launch. Perhaps he'll bring a robot. Can they read books? Probably they could write them, chopping up words on a board.
Mason mentioned in passing that Valentines had closed down. Valentines! It added a certain something to Lincoln Rd; it was an echo of the past, from a time when Cobb & Co ruled supreme. Sad to note its passing. My chapter on Valentines is among my favourites in the book, with its account of meeting two elderly valentines who had found love in the twilight of their lives.
I called into the first of the three new food joints, Cafe Lincoln. It's taken over from the wretched Mr Burger, whose rise and fall is documented perhaps pitilessly in The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd.
In the circumstances I thought it right that I order a burger. It cost $18.50 and came with onion jam honey sauce, and fries; it was first-rate, and I congratulated the chef, and owner, Tony Luong, a quietly spoken Vietnamese with a background in French cooking. The menu was all pistachio-kale pesto and Moroccan potatoes. He's brought some quality to the street. Good luck to him.
It rained, hard and slanting, as I mooched along Lincoln Rd. I had seen the passing of the seasons in my year-long quest. Much of my writing about it was comedy but in fact I thought a lot about death. I kept wondering whether I'd breathe my last in some chicken shack or other-- Lincoln Rd was colourfully dubbed by a nutritionist as "heart attack alley". I already have a heart condition. What was I playing at? But I sailed through the year without harm.
I arrived at Momotea, the fourth store in a new Auckland franchise. It does Southeast Asian food and drink; it doesn't do English. The menu featured photographs of toys in front of plates of food, and the caption read, "Photo for reference purpose only, to prevail in kind." What?
There were sambal prawns ($18.90) and chicken hearts ($7 for five sticks) but I just wanted a nice hot cup of Oolong tea. I sat in one of the infantile lime-coloured booths and stirred it with a long-stemmed spoon and gazed at the rain. The tea was wonderful and it stayed hot in the mug. I felt in no hurry to move, and I reflected on last year's eating marathon and how the prospect of death came true: my brother Paul died in late August. I've written about him in the book and dedicated to him. His daughter Jo wrote in an email, "We used to sit down and read Lincoln Rd together."
My last stop was the remarkably named WoW WoW WoW. Asian, obviously; I wasn't in the mood for ramen or something called inside-out sushi, and ordered side dishes of chicken nuggets and edamame beans. They were both really good. I got talking to the owner, Wei Ling. I liked Wei on sight. Funny, very energetic.
I said to him: "You know, I wrote about Lincoln Rd last year."
He took a deep gasp, and said: "Are you the one?"
"Yes," I said.
He said, "You! You are him!"
"Yes," I said, "I am the man who ate Lincoln Rd."
Wei laughed out loud. It felt good to live once more as that wandering legend of junk food.