Why Memorial Day Menus Became So Grill-Focused

Memorial Day, as the name implies, is meant to be a day when we remember those who died while serving in the military – unlike Veterans Day, which is a time to honor those who died after separating from the service as well as active and former military members who still live. How, then, did the holiday once known as Decoration Day become seemingly less about visiting cemeteries to spruce up grave sites and more about firing up the backyard grill?

Well, on a somewhat optimistic (and yet still somber) note, battle deaths have been declining over the years. During the Civil War (which was the impetus for the first Memorial Day observances) there were over 200,000 battle deaths, while World War II saw close to 300,000 killed in action. During the Vietnam War, under 50,000 died in the line of fire, while in more recent years, the war in Afghanistan saw fewer than 2,000 deaths due to hostilities. Fewer loved ones killed in action fortunately means fewer graves to decorate.

In many circles, rather than being seen as a solemn occasion, Memorial Day instead marks the joyous start to summertime fun. Pools and water parks open, theme parks and outdoor attractions extend their hours and offerings, and suburban householders haul their grills out of the garage to hail the warmer weather with slightly-singed hot dogs and hamburgers. Of course, food media gets in the game, too, kicking off the season by publishing lists of recipes perfect for the grill.

What's on the menu this Memorial Day?

If you're planning a backyard barbecue this Memorial Day, you're in good company. Data compiled by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association for the year 2023 found 44% of all grill owners planned to use them on this day. That makes it the third-most-popular barbecue holiday behind the Fourth of July and Labor Day. The association also notes that the Saturday before Memorial Day, which it designates as "Back to Barbecue Day," is a day on which many grills are sold. (The one thing its data does not indicate, though, is just how many grill owners will actually get around to putting together their "some assembly required" appliances in time for the occasion.)

As for what people will be cooking on those grills, USA Today reports that some of the most-Googled barbecue foods for 2023 were chicken, steak, fish, and — surprisingly enough — asparagus. Each of these items was top in seven states. Moreover, corn came in second with six states, while burgers and ribs tied for third place with four states each. Pork chops came in fourth with three states, but outliers like bratwurst, clams, eggplant, lamb chops, mushrooms, and shrimp only managed one state apiece. If any of these items strikes your fancy, or even if you're looking for other options, you might want to check out our list of memorable Memorial Day recipes.