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National Cheesesteak Day might never have happened if not for four students at Cheltenham High School.
The memory is still vivid among the friends. It was Thursday afternoon of March 24, 1994, when Sean Mealey picked up his buddies John McGrath, Jeremy Hollis, and Ted Goldberg in his two-door Daytona and drove to the now-defunct Stoxy’s Steaks on Oxford Avenue.
The guys ate their cheesesteaks at the counter; fried onions, American, nothing fancy. Ted and John split an order of fries, Jeremy washed his down with Black Cherry Wishniak. It was the relaxed final days of senior year, with the freedom that affords a midweek lunch overcast by the fact that the friends would soon be on their separate ways to schools in different states.
“I remember that afternoon getting dropped off by Sean and walking up my driveway,” McGrath, now 47, told Billy Penn. “The dogwoods were in bloom and I just stood there thinking, ‘Man, what a great day.’”
The following March, during his first year at Pitt, McGrath typed out a letter and sent it off to his pals, along with some new college friends.
Under the header “National Cheesesteak Committee” and addressed to “fellow enthusiasts”, the letter announced the second annual National Cheesesteak Thursday, to be held March 23. It urged all readers, wherever they might be, to grab a sandwich with friends and inform them of the “history and meaning of this day.”
“The stories you can tell in your golden years of all your experiences on this day will keep the grandkids amused for hours,” the letter promised.
Mealey, Goldberg, and Hollis acted promptly. Copies of the letter were hung up or distributed by hand on their respective campuses and sent to younger siblings back home who dutifully spread the word. In that second year alone, National Cheesesteak Thursday successfully expanded from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, New Jersey and San Francisco.
“The response was pretty great,” McGrath recalled. “A lot of [the new] people asked if it was something we’d be doing again.”
And so the letters continued, each year becoming more elaborate — one contained a seven-stage framework for a Great Cheesesteak; another took the form of four poetic odes to cheesesteaks. When email became an option, McGrath said, “it was suddenly a lot easier to reach a lot more people.”
From bloggers and social media to the Great Cheesesteak PR Machine
Goldberg, now 46 and a news editor at San Francisco’s KQED, doesn’t remember an exact date, he said, but “it was the early 2000’s when I suddenly started seeing press releases about National Cheesesteak Day, held on March 24.”
“My first thought was, well, that’s wrong,” Goldberg said, noting that it was not set on a Thursday (a day purposely chosen because of Lent). “But my second thought was, ‘How weird is it that it’s this close to our date?’”
The other three recall similarly surreal experiences coming across postings for a National Cheesesteak Day that hewed awfully close to their own decade-plus old tradition.
“We were spreading National Cheesesteak Thursday for a long time, and a lot of our college buddies were in media studies. You know, early bloggers and writers,” Hollis, now 46, surmised. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if that had something to do with it really getting out there.”
Also, there was the website. In 2003, McGrath set up cheesesteaks.org (you can see an archived version here).
Initial traffic to the sparsely-designed site — which hosted a growing archive of John’s letters, brief bios of him and the other “founding fathers” of NCT, and a few cheesesteak-centric news items such as John Kerry’s Swiss cheese fiasco — seemed limited to the group’s friends and family. But it didn’t take long for the mailing list to grow into triple digits.
“I’d get messages from people I’d never met asking if it was happening this year and I’d say yes, and they’d say something like ‘Alright, go Philly!’,” McGrath said.
“It was definitely wild seeing it come about,” said Mealey, 47.
The internet, with its multitude of national day calendar websites and claim-makers, offers no theories on the origin of National Cheesesteak Day beyond the sandwich’s “invention” in 1930 by Pat Olivieri.
Industry veterans also lack alternate theories.
“I have not been able to discover any information that would refute the claims” of the four Cheltenham High friends, said Ben Fileccia, VP at the Philadelphia Restaurant & Lodging Association.
The day’s possible originators are now passing on the tradition. McGrath often celebrates with his daughter at one of the few “legit” cheesesteak places he’s found in Maine, where he now resides. In San Francisco, Goldberg has photos of celebrating with his son.
Hollis is a teacher in South Philly, where each year he reminds his students of the commemoration — though he refrains from being too self-congratulatory.
“I often say I *think* we started that. It does feel maybe a little too coincidental, you know?” Hollis said. “But we’re not trying to claim credit. At the end of the day, this is Philadelphia’s celebration.”