The wishbone rivalry, the giving of thanks, and the unfortunate task of rescuing grandma’s teeth from the gooey clutches of the cranberry sauce—these are Thanksgiving traditions you’re probably familiar with, but I’ve got my own enduring ritual that trumps them all: deception. From my unassuming place setting at the table, I’ve been lying for over 10 years.

As younger, finicky lass, I was an even pickier eater than I am now. While many of the nose scrunch-inducing foods of my youth still inspire repugnance (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and mac ‘n cheese, I’m lookin’ at you) some of my culinary censures have been recanted. After all, I’ve gotten older and developed my palette to appreciate pleasing flavors in foods other than Lunchables and Chips Ahoy!

At every family Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom has contributed one dish to the bounty: au gratin potatoes. 

Image source
Image source

Hearty, scalloped potatoes drowned in cheese… The simplicity of this humble accoutrement only adds to its mouthwatering charm. As a kid, I was wholly unimpressed by this mound of starch. I was of the steadfast opinion potatoes should only be boiled, mashed, or wrapped in a salty cocoon, deep-fried, and metamorphosed into hot french fries.

Without fail, that steaming bowl of au grain potatoes would make its clockwise rotation to my 3 o’clock spot at the table, and each time I would turn it down. It wasn’t long before I aligned with one of my older cousins. She felt the same way about the putrid potatoes, cleverly nicknaming them “au rotten” potatoes. From that moment on, we unofficially became Team Au Rotten. When the cursed fusion of the states of Idaho and Wisconsin would make it around to both of us, other family members would tease, “Are you going to have some au gratin potatoes???” We’d glance and each other and proudly declare our anti-au gratin sentiments with all the indignance of a vegan being offered a glass of milk.

I had no idea my premature allegiance to this anti-gratin gang would haunt my taste buds for years to come.

A few years passed in this fashion, but I became restless, enmeshed in the confusing struggle of my preferred potato orientation. After some deliberation, I decided to give au gratin potatoes another chance. On Thanksgiving, when my mom finished her beloved dish, she fixed a small bowl for me to sample once more. With a few years of food wisdom under my belt (and also making my belt tight), I approached these familiar dairy-infused potatoes with an open-mind and a growling stomach.

They were delicious. The potatoes were cooked to a perfect al dente, and the cheese melted my stubborn heart. With every bite I took, I knew my days of “au rotten” were behind me. I finished my bowl and licked it clean, demanding seconds.

We took the remaining pot of au gratin potatoes to Thanksgiving dinner. When we entered, I could feel the sweat appearing on my brow. It felt like everyone was looking at me differently, as if, “I ACTUALLY LIKE AU GRATIN POTATOES NOW!” was written on my forehead. I checked my chin and shirt for any molten cheese shrapnel that may have missed the target, but I found none. Only my conscience was stained.

My troubled, pounding heart and me joined the rest of my family at the table. I guzzled my glass of water, and wondered if I was truly ready to come out as an au gratin lover. I should have pulled my like-minded cousin to the side before we sat down—this news was sure to wound her most of all! Perhaps she feels the same way, too… We could present a united front!

The passing ritual began with the mashed potatoes, then the corn. I skipped the Jell-O mold because no food should readily include the word “mold” in its description. I helped myself to turkey, and then the moment of truth came. The au gratin bowl made it into my shaking hands, and I saw all the expectant eyes of my relatives focused on me. They light-heartedly sneered, “Katie! Your favorite!” I looked down at the bowl. One simple spoonful would set me free! I would no longer be bound by the foolish condemnations of my childhood! I scanned the faces of my loved ones around the table. They looked like vultures, eager to pick my bones clean with “I told you so!”s.

I am a woman of few pretentions, and I typically maintain a healthy level of vanity, but faced with admitting I had changed my mind about the au gratin potatoes, all that went into the trash with the leftover sweet potatoes. Pride has a funny way of surfacing when you least expect it.

Like I’d been doing it for years, I imagined how Meryl Strip would behave if she were playing the role of a young girl who lies about liking one style of potatoes. I sighed overdramatically while looking down my nose with disgust at the bowl of au grain potatoes.

“Gross. I am not eating those au rotten potatoes!”

I looked up at my partner in crime beseechingly with the frantic hope my performance had been believable. She nodded approvingly, and I forfeited custody of the potatoes to the relative next to me. I watched wistfully when she spooned an extra large helping onto her plate consisting of her portion and my surrendered one.

In that painful moment, I knew I had chosen my fate.

Every Thanksgiving since then has carried on this way. My mom keeps my secret, and I show up to each Thanksgiving dinner with the imperceptible hint of au gratin on my breath. It might cause more inner-turmoil than most other Thanksgiving traditions, but I’m not a wishbone-pulling kinda gal anyway.

15 thoughts on “In the Au Gratin Closet

Don't you sass me! ...Actually, please do.

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