WASHINGTON — For most people, once a year is enough for the cooking, togetherness and gut-busting feast of Thanksgiving.
Zach Patton and Clay Dunn have celebrated with friends and relatives twice a year since 2009. Patton, a senior editor at Governing magazine, and Dunn, online director at Share Our Strength, write the Bitten Word blog, for which they regularly test recipes from food magazines.
The Thanksgiving project started in 2008 after they first published a postmortem of the holiday dinner they had created from magazine recipes. The menu included a dry-brined turkey from Martha Stewart Living, Brussels sprouts hash with caramelized shallots from Bon Appetit and roasted potatoes with figs from The New York Times — not technically a magazine, but close enough.
They published their recap in early December. The hitch in that strategy: "Readers would have preferred to see those ahead of time," Patton said.
In 2009, the experimental meal shifted to late October and became a full-blown party for about 20, which the couple christened Fakesgiving. They borrowed the name from a friend who hosts a Thanksgiving eve meal.
Flash-forward to the menacingly cloudy Sunday before the arrival of megastorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy: Patton and Dunn found themselves scurrying down a fire escape here, past the dried special-effects blood from the previous night's pre-Halloween revelries, to retrieve a turkey from the grill in their back yard.
Even before tasting the bird (Cook's Illustrated), Patton, 33, and Dunn, 34, were pleased. Cooking the turkey outdoors freed up room in the oven to finish or reheat some of the other 18 items on the menu. "Yesterday was an eight-hour cooking day," Dunn said.
It was a kind of orderly chaos. A printout of an Excel spreadsheet organizing the food and prep schedule hung on the refrigerator door, a short distance from the stove, where Patton's mom, Brenda Lewis, stood over a pot of creamed greens (Martha Stewart Living).
"They are the impresarios," said Lewis, a retired college administrator from Tullahoma, Tenn., "and we are the sous-chefs."
Also assisting was Patton's sister, Cassidy Papadopoulos, in from Annapolis with her husband, Dean. She took the lead making the paprika-spiced mayonnaise to accompany Patton and Dunn's own fried Brussels sprouts — one of several dishes not from a food magazine.
Papadopoulos, who will host the family's actual Thanksgiving at her house, had to make the dip five times to get it right. First, it was too hot in the kitchen for the mayonnaise to set. Then the olive oil flavor was too pronounced. So it continued. Still, most everything was going smoothly by late afternoon as guests started to trickle in to the couple's airy apartment.
"They never seem flustered," said two-time Fakesgiving guest Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Not even when the introduction of wet Brussels sprouts into a Dutch oven caused hot oil to splatter up and onto Patton's dress shirt. Lewis swooped in to attack the stain, further adding to her accomplishments, which included putting together the flower arrangements and ironing the linens for the three candlelit tables in the dining room.
Unlike at other Thanksgivings, no one was asking when the food was going to be ready. Everyone knew the drill. The dishes needed to be photographed for future Bitten Word posts before they could be eaten. The freshly fried sprouts and pitchers of gin apple cider, another Patton and Dunn concoction, kept the guests occupied.
As the volume in the living room rose, perhaps proportionally to the volume of gin apple cider consumed, Dunn and Patton continued their work in the kitchen. They carved the turkey and sprinkled it with parsley. They artfully tossed pomegranate arils on a platter of winter squash with spiced butter (Bon Appetit) until the seeds not-so-artfully fell into one of the stove top's gas burners. They poured relishes and chutneys into trays and bowls of varying shapes.
One by one, the dishes took their places on makeshift buffet areas: an enclosed radiator and a low storage cabinet covered with butcher paper. Ratio-wise, the number of foods to try and mouths to feed was almost even. But Dunn wasn't worried about excessive amounts of food leading to many leftovers or stomachaches.
"This is more about tasting all the different things than getting disgustingly full," he said.
The key is to take small portions of everything and then go back for what you like the most, according to Sue Davis, a friend who has been at all four Fakesgivings.
That seemed to be the approach of all the guests, who tucked in after Dunn and Patton quickly ran down the roster of what they had made.
This year's magazine recipes came from eight sources: Fine Cooking, Martha Stewart Living, Everyday Food, Food & Wine, Cook's Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Food Network Magazine and Saveur. Patton and Dunn decided on their menu by shuffling recipe-name index cards.
"This is not how I would pick a menu" for most other occasions, Patton said.
The selections met with his mother's approval nonetheless. "In some ways, I think the dishes are more compatible than they have been in previous years," Lewis said.
"There's not a throwaway this year," said Drew Porterfield, who has been at the couple's Fakesgiving three times. "They're all pretty good."
Patton's sister wasn't surprised to hear how many people liked the sweet potatoes with bourbon and maple from Bon Appetit. She said she knew it was going to be good as soon as she started putting together its coffee-based glaze. She took particular pride, because it was the first time she got to be in charge of a dish from beginning to end.
Other success stories were less expected. Dunn and Patton had been prepared to pan a tortilla-chip-and-chorizo stuffing from Food Network Magazine. It turned out to be a sleeper hit. On the other hand, Saveur's oyster-and-sausage stuffing sounded better on slick paper; Dunn was not a fan of its fishy taste, while Patton said it probably didn't justify the $30 spent on its bivalves alone.
An informal poll turned up other favorites, such as Lewis' creamed greens, a mushroom-and-leek bread pudding from Ina Garten via Food Network Magazine and a dark, complex sorghum-sweetened chocolate pecan pie from Martha Stewart Living.
Then there were the Brussels sprouts, which more than one person compared to popcorn.
"I've stolen that already" for real Thanksgiving, Brian Johnson said.
Much like Bitten Word followers, Fakesgiving attendees look to Patton and Dunn's feast for inspiration. When asked about favorite dishes from previous years, the answer was nearly universal: The 2011 salted caramel six-layer chocolate cake from Martha Stewart Living. Eyes practically rolled back in ecstasy. Owen Ryan and Trevor McLaren enjoyed the cake so much they considered serving it at their recent wedding. In the end, they decided not to burden their caterer with the nearly half-day project.
Most of Patton and Dunn's friends have to read about the Fakesgiving taste tests on the blog like everybody else. It's a delicate dance deciding who gets to come, Dunn said. After all, if a regular can't make it one year and a newbie comes instead, who gets the seat next year? Several of this year's guests took pride in never having missed a party; others said they specifically arranged their plans to be able to attend.
"It's an amazing tradition," McLaren said.
He might have just secured his 2013 invite.