When the study from Ulm University first hit the media, the headlines were stark: “Burgers linked to childhood asthma”, roared The Irish Times online. Even when the headline in the printed newspaper had tenderised somewhat by the next morning – “Fruit and fish cut asthma risk - study” – the story still asserted that “Children who eat three or more burgers a week may be at a higher risk of asthma and wheezing”. The report further warned that “Researchers from Germany, Spain and Britain who studied data on 50,000 children across the world found the link between burgers and asthma was strongest in rich nations where diets with high levels of junk food are more common”.
Oh dear, that's us. Chomping away, and wheezing away, it seems, eating the very things that so compromise our healthfulness.The modern fast food hamburger fits the bill as an archetypal enemy of health, the quintessential international fast food that loads us up with too much fat, and too much salt.
The problem, however, is that it's not just as simple as it seems. As Frances Guiney, an asthma nurse specialist with the Asthma Society of Ireland pointed out, meat contains “minerals including zinc and magnesium which, if absent from the diet, could be linked to the worsening of asthma”. So we appear to have a classic modern food dilemma: damned if you do, damned if you don't.
And yet, if you open a copy of Alice Water's “Chez Panisse Café Cookbook” and leaf through the beef section, there is the most gorgeous recipe for “Alice's Lovage Burgers”. Hang on. Isn't this the woman behind Edible Schoolyards? Isn't this the saintly lady who is the conscience of American cookery? Wasn't Alice the person who publicly scolded President Bill Clinton over his too-frequent consumption of... eh, hamburgers, actually. And here she is encouraging us to eat them.
And the same is true if you peruse the volume dedicated to recipes using “Beef and Veal” in the classic “Time-Life The Good Cook” series, published as long ago as 1978. “Although the hamburger has suffered rough treatment at the hands of snack-bar cooks, at its best – made from good quality beef, cooked rare, with a juicy red heart – it stands comparison with steak”. So, the 'burger is carnivore heaven, it seems, and as good as a cherished striploin. And meat contains vital minerals which our bodies need to function at their optimum.
As with so much else in the modern world of food and health, a middle course might just be the ideal passage. Even Michael Pollan advocates something of a middle path with Rule 39 of his Food Rules: “Eat all the junk food you want”, says Pollan, but he adds the all-important condition: “So long as you cook it yourself”.
I wouldn't even be so exclusive. Eat all the burgers you want, I'd say, so long as you source them properly, buy them in a good burger bar and not a fast food joint, or make them yourself. I feed my children burgers every week, buying them from the Gubbeen Farm stall at our local market. Their favourites are the beef with chorizo, and the lamb and rosemary, and the venison burger is just about as popular. I also source burgers via Joe Condon's Omega Beef in Waterford, and have a bunch of them in the freezer right now. Most recently, my wife bought packs of the new Derry Clarke Kitchen range prepared by the fine Market Kitchen Butchers from Newcastle in County Dublin. The beef burger was ace, the lamb burger was simply magnificent, and both disappeared in a flash.
But it's not even necessary to have a local artisan or an award-winning chef to make your burgers. Most burgers made by the wonderful butchers of Ireland – our butchers are one of our greatest food assets, an undersung band of heroes with high standards and multifarious skills – are of very good quality. The real challenge, strangely enough, when it comes to eating a butcher's burger is not the quality of the burger. Instead it's the quality of the bread: commercial burger rolls in Ireland are particularly bland and tasteless, and they can ruin the essence of a good hamburger.
And we shouldn't make the mistake of classifying all burger bars as equal. Some of the new breed of specialist burger bars and gastro pubs are particularly good – The Barking Dog in Belfast, for instance, does amazing burgers, including one where the centre of the burger is filled with braised shin of beef. And many of the best Dublin burger shops are not too far behind – the last time I bought a burger and fries for my son PJ in Ranelagh's Gourmet Burger Co, both burger and fries were outstanding, and we had to wait a reassuringly long time for them to arrive.
But, if you have the time and inclination to make your own burgers, then try to be imaginative. Pack a little nugget of Cashel Blue cheese into the centre of the burger, so that when you bite into it or cut through it, the tangy blue cheese melts into the mouth: yum! And follow Alice Waters' tip by mashing up lovage leaves in a mortar with salt and garlic and them mixing all this healthy green goodness into your minced beef before you fry or grill the burger.
And remember that its not necessary, if you want a good burger experience, to always use meat. Instead, get a large field mushroom, pack it with lots of chopped garlic and plenty of butter and chopped parsley, and roast it for twenty minutes or so. Pack it , and all the garlicky juices, into some good crusty bread along with fresh salad leaves, a good, zesty mustard and maybe some hamburger relish. Close your eyes and take a bite. Ah! Hamburger heaven, without the ham.