Old Bay classic seafood seasoning may be synonymous with summery and steamed crabs, but it’s packed with not only bold flavors but history too. The spice mix has become downright trendy, from strictly seafood to dumped on eggs or paired with popular snacks and condiments, from Goldfish to hot sauce.
For those who grew up near Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, there is a sense of Old Bay nostalgia. And for good reason: The origins of this unique spice blend actually go back to Baltimore in the first half of the 20th century.
“Old Bay was created in the 1930s by a German Jewish immigrant to Baltimore,” shares Joyce Whitea food historian living in Annapolis, Maryland. “The spice blend is based on an age-old practice of mixing sweet and savory ground spices.”
That immigrant was Gustav Brunn, who happened to be an herbal expert. Brunn ended up in Baltimore’s then vibrant German community after fleeing Nazi Germany. His recipe, known as “kitchen pepper”, is derived from a tradition of making spice blends. Herbal recipes for kitchen pepper Dating back to the 1800s, the ingredients include cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and pepper.
“This flavor combination was and still is very popular in Asia, but it only developed in medieval Europe when spices from Asia were imported more regularly,” White tells Yahoo Life. “Since sweet spices from the Spice Islands and other parts of Asia were traded overland from one buyer to another on the journey west, they were extremely expensive once they reached Western Europe. They were therefore the status symbols of that time. “
Baltimore served as a hub for such imported spices, and these once exotic ingredients, such as cinnamon and black pepper, were now readily available in the region.
“As spices became more affordable towards the mid-18th century, the sweet spices were often, but not always, taken from savory recipes,” explains White. “However, this medieval combo is still making its way into western dishes, and Old Bay is a prime example of that.”
Baltimore’s many crab and seafood restaurants began to put their own spin on the creation with secret blends of herbs and spices. At the time, the flavor profile could best be compared to pickling spices.
So, what’s in this mix? We don’t know exactly, but we do have some ideas.
“Old Bay is estimated to contain sweet spices such as ginger, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cloves, and cardamom,” says White. “The savory spices are mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper, and red pepper flakes.”
Old Bay is known for its distinct flavor that combines notes of salt and pepper with a hint of smoke. While there’s nothing quite as tasty as the seasoning once you’ve tried it, its distant cousins and substitutes are Cajun seasoning, Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and Chinese five-spice.
The now-iconic spice blend was acquired by the McCormick Company when they got into the spice business in 1896, bringing store-bought Old Bay home everywhere. It’s now best known as McCormick’s proprietary blend of paprika, chilies, and celery salt — along with a few other ingredients that have long been kept a secret. These days, hungry hopefuls will put it on everything from crab cakes and shrimp pudding to fries and chips.
“I grew up with Old Bay on everything from chips to wings and even my popcorn,” Louie Silverio tells Yahoo Life. The 34-year-old proudly showcases Baltimore’s thriving food scene on his Instagram page, @bmorefoodwhich he started in 2015.
“It just tastes like home,” continues the born and bred resident. “There’s nothing like eating a crab feast with Old Bay seasoning—everything from the corn to the steamed shrimp to the deviled eggs. It’s summer in a can.”
Apart from a personal connection, why is he so fond of the herbs? “It’s the perfect combination of salt and spices that makes anything sprinkled on top of it taste great,” he says.
While Silverio enjoys Old Bay traditions, his favorite Baltimore dish with Old Bay is the famous crab pie from Matthew’s Pizzaa local institution since 1943. The dish combines 100% backfin crab meat, hand-shredded mozzarella, imported reggiano cheese, caramelized onions, and, of course, Old Bay seasoning.
Thanks in part to deep marketing pockets of mega-corporation, McCormick, the spice has gained traction worldwide. In addition to Old Bay’s wildly inventive uses, hyper-regional food has gained a mainstream eye in recent years by partnering with a number of nationally and globally sourced brands, including Lay’s ChipsHerr’s Old Bay Seasoned Cheese Curls and the Latest Baked Cheese Cracker Mashup Goldfish†
The limited-edition release of Goldfish Seasoned with Old Bay was met with overwhelming critical acclaim praising the balance of flavor. “I like it a lot,” adds Silverio. “It’s not overly spiced and pairs really well with the original Goldfish flavor.”
One of the more interesting collaborations can be attributed to Flying Dog Brewery, a craft brewery founded in Frederick, Md. Dead Rise Summer Ale, a spiced ale from Old Bay, pays tribute to the state’s summer crab culture and the residents’ almost fanatical obsession with the herb. It is also the only beer company to have an official partnership with the McCormick Company.
“A team member with a deep dedication to their favorite state, seafood and spices came up with the idea for an Old Bay beer and it drove us crazy,” said Ben Savage, chief marketing officer of Flying Dog Brewery. “We love to challenge our brewers to create delicious beers with non-traditional ingredients and flavors. After bringing the idea to McCormick, we were able to work together to create a special edition beer that was originally released for in honor of their 75th anniversary.”
The thirst-quenching release is not only delicious, but also does good by supporting the crab industry: a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ True Blue Programan annual campaign aimed at raising awareness for the struggling industry.
With a fervent dedication to all things herbal, a petition has since been launched to name the brew Maryland’s first official state beer.
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