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The Monday Excerpt: The difficult birth of the man who ate Lincoln Rd

The latest book by Steve Braunias is based on his Herald series about eating everything on sight on Lincoln Rd. In this excerpt from the prologue, he goes behind the scenes to reveal his desperate campaign to get it published.

One day destiny came calling, and I picked up. For years I had been travelling along Lincoln Rd and wondering how to write about this busy and intoxicating street in west Auckland, with its endless stripmalls and its seemingly countless fast-food options; I had the feeling that it held the key to something true about the way we live now; I felt that the subconscious life of Auckland was talking through it, and it was my responsibility to listen. The answer came one day in an instant. I would write about eating everything in sight along the banks of Lincoln Rd in a single year.

All that remained was to sell the idea to the New Zealand Herald. Email to the newspaper’s editor, December 22, 2015: “I want to write something all year next year called The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd. There are like 30 restaurants/food joints [there were, in fact, 55] on that crazy stretch of road in west Auckland and I’d like to eat at all of them and write about them in 2016. There’s just about every fast-food franchise ever, plus curry houses, Korean, bakeries – truly representative of what Auckland really eats!”

Burger at Café Lincoln, which has taken over from the abandoned Mr Burger (Image: Supplied)

The editor said sorry, no room, try the Saturday magazine. Email to the magazine’s editor: “Lincoln Rd is a metaphor for how we eat now”, etc. The editor said sorry, no interest; the magazine appealed to foodies who wouldn’t really want to know how the chicken nuggets at McDonald’s compared to the chicken fries at Burger King. Fair call. I got the same exact brush-off from the weekly dining-out supplement. The possibility began to dawn on me that my idea sucked. Certainly things were looking bad for the man who ate Lincoln Rd. Would he even exist? I tried the weekly travel supplement on the basis that I would be walking quite a lot and continually on the move, and did this not, you know, meet the definition and purpose of travel? It did not.

I could understand their caution. Lincoln Rd seemed obscure, marginal. In fact it was the subject of a long, massively entertaining story in the paper’s Sunday edition, the Herald on Sunday, in July 2015. I wasn’t aware of the story at the time; when I did see it, I felt the horror all journalists suffer when it appears they’ve been scooped. My blood ran cold. Full credit to reporter Matthew Theunissen. He was the man who put Lincoln Rd on the map. It was an ingenious story; he, too, had a hunch that Lincoln Rd stood for something important, was a sign of the times. A very bad sign.

Outdoor scene, Lincoln Rd (Image: Supplied)

He wrote, “Lincoln Road in Henderson, West Auckland, offers an astonishing 34 fast-food options, at least 24 of which could be considered unhealthy. Nutritionist David Hill described it as a ‘shocking commentary on our wonderfully developed first-world country. I don’t think it would be going too far to call it Heart Attack Alley – call it what it is. If it’s going to be contributing to people’s blood pressure, size and cholesterol going up then it’s going to cause heart attacks and strokes.’ Hill said it was compounding an environment where being obese was the norm.”

Lincoln Rd, “a shocking commentary”; Lincoln Rd, “heart attack alley”! The nutritionist was invoking that dread word, that kryptonite to all fast-food franchises: obesity. The links between eating a lot of fast-food and obesity are well established, and the statistics are kept busy. Study, 2014: “The World Health Organisation says New Zealand experienced the fourth-greatest growth in fast-food purchasing among 25 high-income nations from 1999 to 2008. All 25 also increased their weight for height – and NZ was well in front with an increase of more than one point on the body mass (BMI) scale on which a score of 25-29.9 is overweight and 30-plus is obese….In New Zealand, 31 per cent of adults are obese and 34 per cent are overweight.”

Of course it’s a problem and it would be reckless to pretend otherwise. Critics of McDonald’s and other franchises say they’ve responded with window-dressing and salad dressing, and really done nothing substantial to lessen the threat. Critics of the critics of McDonald’s and other franchises say it’s a matter of personal choice, that no one is forcing customers to gorge on fat, sugar and sodium. It’s at this point that the issue wanders off into the woods of political theory. Sides are taken. You either subscribe to the cult of the individual and their right to gorge on fat, sugar, and sodium, or you favour socially responsible agency intervention and the need to protect or at least educate people who gorge on fat, sugar, and sodium.

The last sign on Lincoln Rd that the whole street was once all orchards
and vineyards (Image: Supplied)

Two politically motivated blogs, both right-wing, poured scorn on the Herald on Sunday expose about Lincoln Rd’s alarming status as “heart attack alley”. I found myself reading the disgraced and disgraceful commentator Whaleoil: “A health trougher has decided to demonise an evil stretch of road because it dares to have 30 fast food outlets on it.” Then I read David Farrar’s tart remarks at his site, Kiwiblog: “We must ban drive-throughs! The workers do not have the intelligence to decide for themselves.”

The comments sections of both were likewise appalled that the “health trougher” was so appalled. One reader sneered, “Yes, it is totally disgraceful – we must force the takeaway outlets to stop their staff outside herding people in and forcing them to buy their wares.” Another wrote: “I live out west and can only say bring it on, the more choice the better.” The best comment came from Manolo, who wrote, “David Hill can get fucked immediately!”

Good point, well made. I hate nutritionists. They hover over your plate and pull faces and they don’t pass the salt. Life! It’ll kill you in the end. Kebabs, fried chicken, buns, fat and sugar and sodium – more, please. It tastes good. The question isn’t: what’s in them? And neither is it: what relationship does the menu have to the obesity index? The question is: just how good do they taste? How do the chicken nuggets at McDonald’s compare to the chicken fries at Burger King? You’d never know by reading cuisine literature. Restaurant critics only ever write about places with tablecloths and cutlery. I hate restaurant critics, too. I wanted to be the new gourmand in town. Junk food deserves to be taken seriously, and reviewed properly. It’s what most of us eat. It’s the people’s food.

Wei, the manager at WoW WoW WoW, the latest food joint on Lincoln Rd (Image: Supplied)

Surely, then, there was a way to make someone at the Herald grasp these basic truths and to clutch the column to their breast. I was done with editors; I went to section heads. The Head of Entertainment said no.  So did another Head and then another, and just when it seemed I had run out of Heads, and was about to give up the ghost and pine for the pilgrim that never progressed, I got a yes from Jacqui Loates-Haver, Head of Lifestyle. I drove a hard bargain. She said they wouldn’t cover any meals, no expenses paid. I said okay.

From the prologue of The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25), available at Unity Books.

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