The Strange Origins of National Barbecue Day & National Barbecue Month

Ed Garbisch at the grill

May 16th is National Barbecue Day. Are you ready? Better get that grill cleaned off or map out the route for your celebratory tour of local barbecue joints.

But wait, who says May 16 is National Barbecue Day, anyway? Why, everyone does, especially PR folks plugging sauces and rub blends and food writers dutifully grinding out pieces like, "15 Places to Chow Down for National Barbecue Day.”

But, really, who did say it, meaning what person or organization was responsible for declaring May 16th to be National Barbecue Day? Or May 22th to be National Vanilla Pudding Day? Or June 4th to be National Cheese Day?

No, none of the these “holidays” are recognized by federal government, and there’s no board or agency reviewing or certifying them. They have, nevertheless, become firmly entrenched in the daily routines of America’s marketing agencies and media outlets. Here’s how it got that way.

Codifying the Days

Trade associations and marketing groups have been declaring various “national days” or “national weeks” of things they want to sell for decades. The practice really took off in the 1950s, when PR firms would send out press releases announcing things like National Potato Week or National Car Care Month (the latter of these pushed using baking soda as a cleaner). They included print-ready photos and article copy, and there were plenty of shiftless newspaper columnists who would happily run them almost verbatim.

In the mid 1950s, William D. Chase, the librarian in the Flint Journal newsroom, started keeping a file of all these press releases organized by date so that reporters could draw on them for stories. In 1957, he teamed up with his brother Harrison to publish Chase’s Calendar of Events, which listed 364 events along with a brief description of each. The following year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked the Chases to include a list of trade association events like National Apple Week, and Chases' Calendar of Events ballooned into the standard reference book not just for journalists and marketers but for comedy writers, too, who mined it for "news of the weird" items for radio and television shows.

The book is still published today (the 2022 edition of Chase's Calendar of Events will set you back a cool $90), but it has largely been supplanted by free websites that tabulate the various "national days." The most popular of these include National Day Calendar, Days of the Year and Foodimentary, which is dedicated to food-specific days.

Seeking to learn more about how these sites work, James Hamblin interviewed Marlo Anderson, the founder of National Day Calendar, for an Atlantic piece a few years back. Anderson’s listings actually started offline, for he sold a printed calendar to marketers that listed all the semi-official “days” he could dig up from various sources. He later launched a web version that sold ads to companies wanting to sponsor a particular day’s page, and the site ended up adding some 150 new days of their own creation. They also let people propose new days of their own via an online form, though the odds of getting a new one accepted these days are slim since the calendar is packed.

Indeed, National Day Calendar has been quite promiscuous in doling out National Days. No fewer than SIXTEEN occur the day I am writing this (May 7), according to the site, including (on the food and beverage front) National Roast Leg of Lamb Day and National Homebrew Day.

There’s no firm consistency across the various “authorities”, either. National Day Calendar and Days of the Year recognize May 16 as National Barbecue Day, while Foodimentary declares that May 16 and July 4th are both National Barbecue Day. Days of the Year, for its part, recognizes July 4th as National Barbecue Spareribs Day, which seems sort of redundant—and contradictory, too, since the site also says that July 4th is National Independence From Meat Day.

Unlike Apple Week or Buzzard Day (don't ask), the notion of a National Barbecue Day is a relatively new thing. In 1991, Waldenbooks (remember Waldenbooks?) advertised a buy-two-get-one-free offer for Sunset grilling books on National Barbecue Day, which it identified as May 24th, but that seems to have been a one-off declaration by the bookstore chain and not a coordinated thing.

In 1995, the Weber Grill company implied that no such day actually existed when it asked consumers in its annual GrillWatch survey, “If there were a National Barbecue Day, what would the official menu include?” They presented the results in graphical form:

Weber National BBQ Day.png

The idea went nowhere because, let’s be honest, such a menu would be more appropriate for National Grilling Day.

It wasn't until just a few years ago that National Barbecue Day really took hold, driven by the online calendar sites and amplified by publicists and social media. Foodimentary was plugging it as early as 2014, but 2017 was the first year that food writers really took the bait and started using it as pretext for tons of half-assed grilling features and barbecue restaurant round-ups.

Making the Month

If you manage to somehow to miss National Barbecue Day, don't worry. The entire month of May is also National Barbecue Month. Unlike the Day, the designation National Barbecue Month actually goes back more than a half century, though its history is a bit strange.

For starters, it wasn’t originally celebrated in May. As the summer of 1963 approached, newspapers across the country suddenly started running features announcing that June was National Barbecue Month and offering a slate of backyard grilling tips. From Fresno to Miami, reporters interviewed men identified as the local “chairman” of National Barbecue Month for their respective cities. Many included a picture of the local chairman, spatula in hand, cooking burgers or steaks on a grill.

National Barbecue Month returned in June 1964, prompting another flood of newspaper articles. These declared that “charcoal cooking is sweeping the land” and “everything seems to taste better when it’s cooked outdoors.” Quoting statistics provided by the local chairmen, food reporters dutifully noted that some $4 billion would be spent on food and accessories for outdoor cooking that year.

But who was behind National Barbecue Month, and who appointed those mysterious “local chairmen”? Some of the newspaper stories referenced a “National Barbecue Month Council,” but no organization by this name seems to have actually existed.

The first clue can be found in stories that identified not a local chairman but the grand poobah himself, the nationwide chairman of National Barbecue Month. That was none other than Colonel Edgar W. Garbisch, identified as “one-time All-American center at West Point and now a prominent American industrialist.”

Ed Garbisch at the grill

That was all true. What wasn’t mentioned was that Garbisch qualified as an “industrialist” because he was chairman and CEO of Grocery Store Products Company, a specialty food manufacturer located in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

I bet you’ve never ever heard of Grocery Store Products Company (I certainly hadn’t.) But you may have heard of the company’s flagship product: Kitchen Bouquet. It’s a so-called “browning sauce”, consisting primarily of caramel and a vegetable base, and it’s purpose is primarily aesthetic, since it will impart a pleasing dark brown color when brushed over a steak.

None of the National Barbecue Month articles come right out and say, “sponsored by Kitchen Bouquet,” but the product name gets sprinkled into the copy pretty regularly. Indiana chairman S. G. Cederquist, for instance, offered the Indianapolis News a series of grilling tips. These included letting starter fluid soak into charcoal before lighting it, wrapping corn and potatoes in aluminum foil for grilling, and “brush both sides of the steak with Kitchen Bouquet before putting it on the grill.”

If you look closely at the photo of Ed Garbisch above, you might note a stylish “KB” logo on his apron. And if you peruse the grilling recipes that food editors included in their National Barbecue Month features, you might notice a common ingredient.

National BBQ Day Recipe 3.png

National BBQ Day Recipe 2.png

As for the identities of those local “chairman”, most are identified only by name and not their profession in the articles. But I poked around a little, and most had some connection to the grocery or meat industries—an executive from a grocery distribution company, the manager of the California Turkey Promotion Advisory Board, and so on.

That “local chairman” idea was a shrewd bit of marketing, for it gave the stories a seemingly-local angle and got them into more papers, even if the statistics the chairmen cited all came from the national “Council,” which I would guess was actually the Grocery Store Products Company’s ad agency.

The campaign turned up the dial even further in 1967, when National Barbecue Month was moved to July. That same year, a new national chairman was announced: Texas pitmaster Walter Jetton, famed caterer and barbecue cook for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Walter Jetton - National BBQ Day.png

Jetton’s stature got even more newspapers to run National Barbecue Month features, many of which quoted Jetton’s tips for “grilling a perfect steak.” These included confiding in your butcher, cooking to taste, and—can you guess?—“brush [the meat] liberally with Kitchen Bouquet beforehand to seal in the juices.”

The first incarnation of National Barbecue Month was nearing its end. Kitchen Bouquet doesn’t appear to have promoted it in 1968, though many food writers kept using National Barbecue Month as a convenient hook for summer grilling pieces, some in June and some in July. By the time Clorox bought Kitchen Bouquet in 1971 the special month seems to have been forgotten.

The Come Back

Fast forward a decade to 1981, when the recently-formed Barbecue Industry Association (BIA) launched a National Barbecue Month of its own, this time in May. Unlike Kitchen Bouquet's promotion, the BIA’s sponsorship was made explicit, and the designation was used in advertisements for everything from charcoal grills to Adolph’s Natural Meat Tenderizer, which set up a “Tele-Butcher” hotline that grillers could call for tips.

Nation BBQ Month - Grills.png

In 2002, the Hearth Products Association merged with the BIA to form the current Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA). The HPBA kept a steady stream of poll results, statistics, and other marketing content flowing each May, and the month has been National Barbecue Month ever since.

These days, no single company or trade group has to throw its marketing muscle behind promoting the concept of a National Barbecue Day or a National Barbecue Month. An army of PR flacks do it for them, seizing up the supposed “holiday” to unleash a flood of press releases and email pitches offering story ideas, recipes, chef interviews, and samples of whatever product they’re flogging, from hand sanitizer to barbecue sauce. There’s an army almost as large of food writers and “content creators” who churn out endless “top 10” lists of grilling tips, barbecue joints, and wine pairings to “celebrate” the occasion, too.

It’s a time-honored American tradition.