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Eric Schaefer Gives Thanks for Latkes and Ham

Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.

In case you hadn't figured it out by now, I'm Jewish. What that really means is that in between my time spent feeling guilty about something, running Hollywood, polishing the horns that I tuck into my hair, and prevailing over Wall Street, I'm probably obsessing over food or -- more likely -- obsessing over food while simultaneously feeling guilty about something and fantasizing about Sarah Silverman.

One of the particularly weird things about Judaism (and there are many) is that the calendar is based on the lunar cycle, while the Gregorian calendar is based on the solar cycle. This means that Jewish holidays fall at different times of the year relative to the Gregorian calendar. Truthfully, I've never quite understood it, but as a self-professed Jewish Buddhist Atheist, there isn't much about religion that I truly understand.

See also: 10 Best Doughnuts in Metro Phoenix

So, provided that your roster of Facebook friends contains at least one Jew, you're probably now aware of the fact that Chanukah (or Hanukah, or Hanukkah, etc,) comes at a particularly early time this year and commences on the evening of November 27, making Thanksgiving Day the first official day of Chanukah. The last time this happened was in 1888. Everyone wrote about it on MySpace.

The consequences of this rare convergence are still unknown, save for the all-too-predictable Thanksgivukkah mash-ups and ceremonial sacrifice of a Christian friend. (Just kidding, we stopped doing that a few years ago.) But you can be certain that the latke, the culinary poster child for Chanukah, will likely make an appearance on the Thanksgiving tables of many Jewish families.

It is said that latkes are associated with Chanukah because the oil in which they're cooked is symbolic of oil that kept an ancient temple lit for eight nights, when it was expected to only last for one. It was, they say, a Chanukah miracle. Ironically, Chanukah is a holiday of negligible religious significance. Most of our holidays are somber and the holiest day of all (Yom Kippur) involves fasting -- the worst punishment one can bestow on a Jew.

Let me get this straight: Latkes equal Chanukah because they're cooked in oil? That's the best we can come up with? Couldn't they have chosen fried chicken instead? What could be better than celebrating Chanukah, gathered around the warm glow of the lighted menorah with your family and friends while enjoying a bucket of KFC? Personally, I'd vote for tempura-battered shrimp, but that raises a whole other set of theological (and culinary) issues. I can only speculate how many turkeys are going to be impaled with Chanukah candles this year, as some sort of poultry menorah.

Growing up as a not-particularly-religious Jewish kid, but one with a strong Jewish cultural identity, Chanukah was -- and still is -- all about latkes. Cooking latkes smells up the house and covers the whole kitchen in a fine mist of oil, but all that is forgotten once they're smothered in sour cream and shoved into your mouth: oniony, crunchy, make-your-teenage-Jewish-face-break-out greasy ecstasy. For truly divine latkes, I suggest that you let my wife cook them, but Goldman's Deli in Scottsdale does a fine rendition as well.

These days, it seems, latkes are losing favor to doughnuts. Apparently, latkes are largely non-existent in Israel, where doughnuts are more convenient to make and the ingredients more readily available. To hell with tradition; God likes convenience and jelly doughnuts.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, bar none. Chanukah is largely irrelevant to me, although we celebrate it for the sake of our children. I look forward to Thanksgiving all year and lament its passing almost as soon as our guests leave. I cook the turkey and dressing, and we've even added a ham to the menu in recent years. (It's from a kosher pig.) For reasons of time, table space and lack of room on the stove-top, it's unlikely that latkes -- or doughnuts -- will make it to our Thanksgiving table this year (that's okay, we've got several more nights to get them in) but that doesn't mean our feast will be anything short of miraculous. And I hope that yours is as well.

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