At Auckland's second annual fried chicken festival, Greg Bruce seeks transcendence.
My dad died eight months ago and exactly four days later my body began wanting fried chicken. This, apparently, was the point in the grief cycle where the desire for pleasure starts to assert itself in the face of pain. But I couldn't account for the specificity of that desire and I couldn't satisfy it. I tried - how I tried. I drove all over Auckland, bringing back boxes and pottles of lukewarm, half-arsed poultry from all parts.
Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered an ad for Auckland's second annual fried chicken festival. It revealed that last year's debut had brought together Auckland's leading mobile purveyors of hot chicken at La Cigale in Parnell for one night only and sold out its 1800 tickets in 19 minutes. This year, the ad said, the festival would be moving to Shed 10, where it would take place over four sessions and two days. I got a ticket, which was lucky because all 4500 tickets sold long before it opened.
The appreciation of something you have long desired and finally obtained is a test. It requires you to first deal with the fact that, for instance, after walking through the doors of Shed 10, you don't feel any of the excitement you'd hoped and planned for.
Once you're there - jammed in with people you don't love, many of whom are damp from the rain, the dominant sound coming from a man on stage playing guitar and singing a melancholy version of "Praise You" by Fatboy Slim - you understand your naivete in believing in the potential of the physical world to deliver an emotional load.
You look around at the names of the food trucks lining the edges of Shed 10 - Bacon Bros, Kai Eatery, Temaki Truck - which the vendors have probably spent so much time developing, considering them from all angles, but which, to you, reduce to a binary: yes/no, based on their perceived fulfilment/disappointment ratio. You can't get the name Judge Bao out of your head, presumably because its meaning is impenetrable. It sounds like it wants to be a pun, but you can't unlock it. None of this is what you hoped for many weeks ago when you first began dreaming of the fried chicken festival.
With a journalist's eye, I noticed the queue for Peach's Hot Chicken was 10 times longer than that for any other vendor. It was longer than all the other queues put together - comprised of easily more than 100 people. At an event where every vendor was serving the same fundamental foodstuff and the presumption of quality was high, this was a remarkable achievement.
From the moment you are confronted with the prospect of joining a preposterously long queue, the plane of your existence bends to it, such that - even if you choose not to - you have joined it; it exists within you, runs right through you, occupies you, is you. You can go elsewhere: to Just Chicken or Lowbrow or Mexico, but even as you eat their offerings, inside you continues to lurk the prospect of Peach's. Either you join its queue or you take your place in a mental and emotional queue for a plate full of envy garnished with irrational anger.
For this reason, and because I wasn't hungry, I joined the multitudes. For 53 minutes, I waited for my Peach's, which ultimately was a bad judgment call because by the time I reached the front, the queue had shrunk by more than half.
Two days before the festival, I had been desperately sick. I was still short of a gallop the day prior, and was less than perfect even as I arrived at Shed 10 at 12.30pm on Sunday. The queuing was somewhat restorative but still I wasn't really in the mood when the cone of chicken was produced and propped on the counter, garnished with three slices of lime-green pickle and a clear plastic pottle of a creamy sauce. Also, I was thirsty.
Nevertheless, I put that first piece in my mouth and bit through it. Before I required it to be consumed, I allowed it to exist, and in that moment, it delivered me from myself. My world shrank and the plane of my existence bent to the experience. There was nothing else. I ceased to be thirsty and I no longer felt unwell. It was all-consuming, like the first hiss of intimate contact - the touch of a cheek, say - with someone more beautiful than you, like hitting a ball so purely and truly that all effort is nullified and returned to you as a gift, like an ecstasy-laden dance party on a tropical beach on a warm night.
The experience was truth and light, promise and delivery, birth and death, the circle of life. It was elemental. I understood, at that point, something I had never understood before: good fried chicken has a slight tang to it.
The previous night and again that morning I had spent a reasonable amount of time on Instagram researching what people had enjoyed at the festival's Saturday sessions. Based on their comments, I went to The Coop, but it had sold out of chicken, so I went to Lowbrow. They told me the wait would be four minutes.
I ordered two wings. They were fine and quite large. I bit off a chunk and allowed it to exist. It was like going for a slightly too-long walk on the beach with an acquaintance and running out of things to talk about and then having it start to rain, although the rain isn't unpleasant and the scenery is still nice.
After that, I went to Just Chicken. They were serving boneless chunks. Their coating was thick and crunchy but it was more texture than flavour. It was like going to the beach but wishing you were at a different beach.
I had planned to eat more chicken but, although it was only 2.30pm, I was already full enough that I wouldn't need to eat again until the following morning. More relevantly, though, what was the point of carrying on? I had already experienced transcendence. Trying to replicate a one-of-a-kind experience is logically incoherent. That way lay endless disappointment and presumably nausea.
When I arrived home, my wife told me I smelled of fried chicken. It was coming not from my breath, she said, but from my body. I was oozing it. I had become fried chicken and it had become me - our planes of existence had bent to each other.
After so much seeking, I had finally found. My quest was complete; I was fulfilled. It was one of those experiences for which language feels inadequate. If I had to choose a single word, though, I guess the leading contender would have been "gassy".