The greatest challenge of all – a hamburger challenge – fairly leaped out of a news story in Monday's Herald about the perils of fast food. I set about meeting that challenge on Tuesday and Wednesday. All I could consume by the time Thursday came around was fruit and water.
Monday's Herald carried the results of new research conducted by the University of Auckland. It found that New Zealand fries and burgers are too salty by international standards, and that some combo meals are so immense they're roughly the equivalent of our daily energy needs in one sitting. I took that as good news. New Zealand is leading the world salt table! Our combos provide value for money! The report then went on to slam fast food as bad for our health, and recommended the Government introduce regulations.
Yeah, the usual stuff, but one paragraph in Dubby Henry's story stood out. "The worst offender was a double burger with dessert, fries, and a sugary soft drink, which contained 16 teaspoons of sugar and more salt and kilojoules than the average adult needs in an entire day. The researchers did not name the fast-food chain responsible."
I needed to know the fast-food chain that was responsible. There was only one way to find out. The research team studied 20 fast-food chains; six of them were burger joints. Which one was the "worst offender"? Or the best supplier of energy, if you want to look at it that way?
The researchers also found a huge variation in sizes, such as burgers that ranged from 101 grams up to 718 grams.
And so I set out on Tuesday equipped with a set of kitchen scales, and an unholy appetite. Five years ago, I was the man who ate Lincoln Rd, when I set myself the year-long challenge of eating at each of the 55 food outlets along that unlovely and massively popular straight stretch of road in West Auckland. Just thinking about it stirred vivid memories of salt, fat, and fries with that; I was now on a kind of comeback tour. I should have known sequels rarely succeed.
On the stroke of the latest lockdown lifting – there is no more meaningful measure of time in modern life than 11.59pm – long queues of the hungry and righteous were able to place their orders in fast food drive-throughs all across Auckland. You could sense the relief, the joy, the freedom. It's not quite as exciting now that they're open for inside dining. I sat alone at most of the six burger joints on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Go for smaller portions," recommends Dr Sally McKay, lead researcher of the food study. "Skip the dessert, and choose a low-sugar drink." I met her a third of the way: I skipped dessert, but stuck to Coke and sought out double burgers. Fries with that, naturally.
The journey began at KFC in Pt Chevalier. The closest KFC does to a double burger is the Zinger Stacker (two fillets of chicken). It only weighed 210g on my scales - curiously, according to its own site, it should be 338g. The chicken was pretty lean. As for the fries, they lacked salt, which is as essential to a fry as oxygen is to life forms.
Conclusion: Chicken never killed anyone. I doubt that KFC is the villain of the combo findings.
Next stop, McDonald's at WestCity mall, Henderson. The chain has extensive nutritional information on its site – it measures sodium, fat, carbs and sugars – but a graph can only tell you so much about what you're eating. I ordered a Double Big Mac and it was actually pretty disgusting, a soggy, collapsing mess of four meat patties loosely glued with melted cheese and mean scraps of lettuce and onion. The fries were heavily salted, and inspired a deep thirst for my Coke, which in turn inspired a need for more salt; it was like a wonderful cycle of abuse, or a fast superhighway of additives and addictions, leaving the burger (although only weighing in at a sleek 230g) to trundle through the middle of it like a slow, heavy truck. It was a long way from pleasure and an even further distance from anything resembling healthy eating.
Conclusion: I suspect McDonald's is the combo villain. Also, I wish I'd ordered the Serious Angus.
The 133 bus took me to Wendy's in Te Atatū South. When my Double Big Classic arrived, I wasn't sure what I was looking at until I realised that the crisp green thing that poked out of all sides of the burger was a very large, very fresh leaf of lettuce. Inside was a very large, very fresh tomato, and a few fat rings of red onion. A message from the founder was written on the restaurant wall: "All of Wendy's spins off of one word – fresh." Love the "off of", and agree with the claim.
Conclusion: No way in the world is Wendy's the combo culprit. Oh and the burger weighed a mere 200g.
But all up that day I had consumed 640g of burger as well as three Cokes and three fries, and finished the day feeling kind of like basically sick as a parrot. I blame Dr Sally McKay. I should have ordered desserts: they would have given me the energy I needed to survive.
Wednesday was all about that avenue of fat, that tarseal of sodium, that boulevard of broken dreams – the man who ate Lincoln Rd returned to Lincoln Rd, and ate deep. It began at Burger Fuel where the American Muscle Double weighed in at an astonishing 380g. "There's only 100% pure grass-fed beef," advises the menu. "No fillers, no flavours, no preservatives, no hormones." All of which indicated that it would have no taste but in fact it was the best burger I ate in my two-day burger challenge, a large, juicy, steaky feast.
Conclusion: No way in the world is Burger Fuel the combo culprit. It's a shame they don't do desserts.
Across the way is Nando's. I got a Classic, and asked for extra chicken to make it a double burger, with fries, Coke, and a pot of chocolate mousse. The selling point of Nando's is its famous periperi sauce but the trouble with its famous periperi sauce is that it's so powerful that makes just about everything taste like its famous periperi sauce, including the chocolate mousse. I didn't especially enjoy this meal, although the iceberg lettuce was so fresh and crunchy that it alone didn't taste like Nando's famous periperi sauce.
Conclusion: Chicken never killed anyone. I doubt that Nando's is the villain of the combo findings.
Across the way is Burger King but it was a burger too far, a burger too many, a burger that brought on a wave of tiredness not just with eating burgers but with life itself. I sat alone in what felt like a deserted dining area at the end of the world. The red ceiling lamps hung like something from a bygone age – they gave Burger King the haunted vibe of The Shining. My Double Whopper weighed 250g and had the same sticky glue of cheese with mean strips of lettuce and onion as McDonald's. The fries needed more salt. I got churros, which needed less sugar. It began to drizzle. The sky needed more rain…
Conclusion: I suspect Burger King is the combo villain. It's always competed with McDonald's, and never quite matched it, but it felt as equally bad in the great hamburger challenge of 2021.
The odyssey ended at about 4.30pm. I walked back along Lincoln Rd, feeling kind of like basically more sick than a parrot, and paused outside Waitākere Hospital. It was tempting to step inside and at least rest a while. But hospital food is so awful, and I kept moving.