Chow Bella

Live Rabbits and Fried Pickles at First Friday in Phoenix

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.

I may very well be one of the few Phoenicians who somehow has managed to avoid the social and cultural phenomenon known as First Friday. Sure, I've passed through it on my way to a downtown sporting event, but I never managed to travel downtown purely for the purpose of First Friday. And if you think that Phoenix is nothing more than a cultural black hole of strip malls and bad stucco, then one visit to First Friday likely will be enough to change your mind.

An opening of an excellent art exhibit by James Cook at the Willo North Gallery brought me downtown, and it seemed a good enough excuse to delve deeper into the downtown scene. Roosevelt Street is packed with people of all ages, ethnicities, and nearly every stereotype that exists. Street musicians, open galleries, food trucks, and stalls selling everything from bongs to crafts (and hand-crafted bongs!) are a great reminder that, culturally speaking, there is a lot of life in Phoenix.

And, of course, I ate.

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First Friday also is ground zero for what arguably is the perfect food: fried pickles at Sit . . . Stay, the brick-and-mortar outpost of popular food truck Short Leash Hot Dogs. For only six bucks, you get a basket of pickle slices that are battered and fried to a crunchy crisp. With the perfect balance of sweet (from the pickle) and salty (from the seasoned batter), these pickles alone would have been worth the 25-mile drive from my house. Washed down with a cold brew from Four Peaks and followed up with a Spicy Hot in one of its various guises, I was left scratching my head in wonder.

Why the hell hadn't I done this sooner?

But all that I'm-proud-to-live-here juju evaporated when I wandered further into the First Friday scene and ended up in front of Revolver Records. Swarmed by hipsters circling crowded stalls and lots of Phoenix police officers looking bored and slightly annoyed, I found myself in front of a tent with big signs offering the chance to win a "live rabbit." The premise is simple: toss a few ping-pong balls into a small floating cup of water and you can take home an adorable baby bunny.

Except that the bunnies, twitching each time a ball grazed them, were obviously scared shitless from the noise and the crowds, not to mention the blaring loud music a mere 50 feet away. Hordes of onlookers apparently were oblivious to the fact that animals shouldn't be prizes and that going home with a bunny should imply a great deal of care and responsibility.

As enlightened as First Friday first seemed, the live bunny booth seemed archaic, cruel, and positively backwards. I left feeling sad, disgusted, and confused as to how this could be allowed.

After a few tweets and Facebook posts, I learned that the live-bunny contest vendor "rented" space from Revolver Records. On Saturday morning, I called the owner of Revolver Records. At first the owner, TJ, wanted me to call back another day because Saturday was his busiest day. But less than 30 minutes later, likely prompted by a grassroots social media campaign that quickly was gaining momentum, he called me back to explain that the bunny booth generated a lot of foot traffic and that "there were only two or three bunnies there."

I did my best to politely explain that animals aren't a prize and that I wasn't the only one who was outraged, and he politely agreed to not have the bunny vendor back at future First Fridays. I couldn't have asked for a better response, and I hope that the bunny giveaway doesn't mar the event somewhere else. I also learned that the city of Phoenix recently enacted legislation that makes it illegal to offer an animal as a prize. So I hope that next time, if there is one, the Phoenix Police Department will do a better job of enforcing the laws that their community has deemed important enough to enact.

But I'd rather think about those pickles. Damn, those pickles. Perfect.

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Eric Schaefer