Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Old Bay but Never Thought to Ask

Carrie Murphy

Old Bay is as familiar to a Marylander as Cal Ripken, or traffic on the way to the beach. This spice standby has been wildly popular throughout the Delmarva region for decades, but have you ever stopped to wonder where this delicious regional spice came from? Well, I did. All of the Baytriot advertising downtown this summer got me thinking about Old Bay and its presence in Maryland life. All summer, we go around with Old Bay caked under our fingernails (after enjoying crabs, of course), but I wanted to know why Old Bay became the go-to seasoning for seafood, especially in our area.

Old Bay as we know it was invented in the late 1940s by a man named Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant to Baltimore (funny, as a German immigrant was also responsible for the quintessentially Baltimore Berger cookies). He mixed up the famous combination of spices, which reportedly consists of mustard, paprika, celery, bay leaf, red and black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, salt and ginger...although the actual recipe for the blend is top-secret. It's named after the Old Bay line, which was a passenger steamship line that traveled the Chesapeake Bay in the early part of the 20th century. Its original name was "Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning," to which I say I think Old Bay definitely has more of a ring to it.

As the story goes, crabs were so plentiful during the early 1940s that spice mixes were invented to get bar patrons to stay longer (and buy more beverages). Of the ones that were created at the time, only Old Bay has lived on; the spice blend rapidly became a regional favorite. In 1990, the company was bought by McCormick Spice and production moved to Hunt Valley. As we know, Old Bay has remained wildly popular here on the Eastern Seaboard, although it wasn't really available in other parts of the country until McCormick became the manufacturer and distributor. Today, McCormick sells about 50 million ounces of Old Bay per year, including newer blends like low-sodium Old Bay and Old Bay with garlic and herbs.

The red stuff is great on seafood, of course, but Baltimoreans have also been known to use it to flavor corn-on-the-cob, french fries, mashed potatoes and of course, Utz's famous Crab Chips. The classic red, blue and yellow packaging tells us that Old Bay is used on salads, but I can't say I've ever seen that (aside from chicken or tuna salad).  Tell us other ways you like to enjoy your Old Bay. I like mine on popcorn and pumpkin seeds.

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