In late 1993, the City Council was hotly debating a parking meter revenue issue: What could be done with the $6 million collected by downtown parking meters that year?
As I struggled to decipher what was being mumbled and frantically scribbled notes, a figure appeared before my desk. It was Hal Bernson, for 16 years councilman of the north San Fernando Valley. Maybe he was going to give me a little insight on the issue. Perhaps share his thoughts on what to do with the 24 million quarters parking meters had gobbled up. Possibly he would let me in on some "off-the-record" tidbits.
He leaned forward and asked with the utmost gravity,"Have you been to Peppone? The food is very good and they have one of the best wine lists around."
His comments took me by surprise. While I tried to follow the council debate, my real interest was in what Bernson was talking about. I listened with one ear to the formal proceedings and with the other--much more interested--ear learned about the veal dishes and the impressive wine list at Peppone restaurant in Brentwood.
It was the first of many times that council members and their assistants updated me with their latest food and wine experiences.
Bernson turned out to be right about Peppone's wine list. It is grand. And no council member is more interested in food and wine than Bernson.
Born in 1930, during the Depression, he grew up in Boyle Heights, then an ethnically mixed neighborhood of Mexicans, Armenians, Jews, Russians and Japanese. Bernson' father was a Romanian Jew, his mom a Polish Jew. He was raised on traditional sturdy Eastern European dishes: stuffed cabbage, borscht and \o7 mamaliga\f7 , a Romanian dish of corn meal, sour cream and feta cheese.
When his father died of a heart attack and his mother had to get a job, Bernson began to cook for himself and his younger sister, Ceci. One of the dishes he prepared was his favorite from his mother's repertoire: hamburger and potatoes, a peasant dish given a boost of flavor by the addition of what he calls "Jewish lard," chicken fat.
"I loved that dish, but we didn't get it very often back then," Bernson says. "It was still during the Depression, and even though it was ground beef, it was considered a luxury. We were lucky we even had food." Today the dish is still a luxury, but now for health reasons.
"This dish is definitely not politically correct food, especially with the chicken fat, but I still make it and like it."
After serving in the Navy and running a clothing store in Bakersfield, Bernson moved back to Los Angeles in 1956 and quickly developed his love of dining out. Some of his favorite places then were the Four Trees in Hollywood, Steer's Steak House on La Cienaga, the Marquis on Sunset Strip, the Moscow Cliff in Studio City and the Wild Goose in Studio City.
These days, Bernson's favorite restaurant in his district is Brent's Deli in Northridge, where he loves the corned beef. But Italian food is his first choice. Basides Peppone, he enjoys Vitello's in Studio City, where budding opera stars perform on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
When it comes to wine, Bernson favors big California Cabernet Sauvignons, especially Chateau Montelena and Shafer's "Hillside Select." For Chardonnay he favors Mount Eden and Talbot "Reserve."
MY MOTHER'S HAMBURGER AND POTATOES
Bernson says to serve this with a big Cabernet Sauvignon. He also claims it is impossible to add to much garlic to this--or to any other dish.
3 large boiling potatoes
1/4 cup chicken fat
2 pounds extra-lean ground round steak
1/2 large onion, minced
2 slices challah, or egg bread, torn into small pieces
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Boil potatoes in salted water, drain, peel and mash. Mix chicken fat with potatoes and add salt to taste. Form into patties and set aside.
Mix ground round, onion, egg, challah, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Form 8 to 10 patties, adding just enough water to make patties loose, almost falling apart, about 2 tablespoons.
Fry patties in oil over medium heat in skillet. Since patties are loose, some crumbs of meat should remain in pan when patties are removed.
Add potato patties to skillet and fry over medium heat until brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve with hamburger patties.
Makes 4 to 5 servings.
Each of 4 servings contains about:
442 calories; 252 mg sodium; 159 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 44 grams protein; 0.50 gram fiber.
Rita Walters's cooking career got off to a bad start. While teaching her to make biscuits, Walters' mother received a visit from a neighbor. Impatiently, 8-year-old Rita interrupted the porch conversation and asked her chatting mother if she should "put the biscuits on the top or bottom." Her mother, thinking she meant the top or bottom rack of the oven, said the bottom. Walters put them in the very bottom of the stove, the broiler. Suffice it to say nobody ate those biscuits.
The disasters didn't end there.