It goes without saying that Old Bay is Baltimore’s favorite spice for everything. Here in Charm City, we take our flavoring seriously. For us, there is nothing more serious than getting the perfect sprinkle of Old Bay on your crabs. Or, in your beer, on your chips, and in or on just about anything else you can think of, including ice cream. More on that in a bit. If you want to know what goes with Old Bay seasoning? The answer is just about everything.
It used to be that only we locals knew about this culinary mainstay. Now you can find it everywhere. Nevertheless, having traveled far and wide throughout the U.S., I still maintain that it takes a hometown girl to know how to wield the iconic yellow can successfully in her kitchen. Maybe I’m a bit biased.
Who Invented Old Bay?
Just what is this quintessential Maryland culinary concoction and where did it come from? Gustav Brunn invented Old Bay in 1939. A German immigrant fleeing the Nazis, Gustav left behind his spice company in Frankfort and landed in New York. After settling in Baltimore, Gustav started the Baltimore Spice Company. Soon after, he created a seasoning that could be paired with the local seafood.
Originally called “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,” he later changed the name to Old Bay. Ok, but why is it called “Old Bay?” The name refers to the Old Bay Line whose steamships ferried folks between Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia. The spice itself is a blend of 18 flavors, of which only four are printed on the can: celery salt, black pepper, red pepper, and paprika. From old cans, we know that the blend also contains cinnamon, gloves, and cardamom. It sounds weird but these spices help create Old Bay’s distinctive flavor. As for the rest? Well, that answer lies in the Old Bay super-secret formula.
In any event, Old Bay as a seafood seasoning in Baltimore took off as soon as the local saloon owners started putting it on the free crabs they gave their customers. Sort of like a much tastier version of the today’s salty bar nuts. As for the free crabs? Amazingly, crabs were once so plentiful in the Bay that bar owners would give them away to keep the customers drinking. Old Bay is now part of the McCormick & Co. spice portfolio, which has taken our little yellow cans to national prominence. Fun Fact: Gustav actually worked for McCormick & Company. McCormick fired him after his first week the reasons for which vary depending on the source but one source claimed he was booting for his lack of English speaking skills.
Our Spice Takes Over
That history has brought us to today and why Old Bay is Baltimore’s favorite spice for everything. While it was originally developed to season the local seafood, we expanded how we use this classic spice in our own culinary endeavors. If you are wondering what goes with Old Bay seasoning, the answer is anything. Baltimoreans use it on just about everything. We add Old Bay to salads, meats, deviled eggs, corn on the cob, and fries just to name a few.
Herr’s chip company produces authentic Old Bay potato chips and cheese curls. Flying Dog brewery developed an Old Bay infused summer ale in celebration of the seasoning’s 75th anniversary. Sweet Cascades not only makes little crab shaped chocolates flavored with Old Bay, but also chocolate truffles sprinkled with the spice on top. Maryland’s Ocean City main stain Fisher’s Popcorn has joined the club with you guessed it, Old Bay seasoned popcorn. Even ice cream isn’t safe as Baltimore’s Charmery in Hampden makes an Old Bay flavor.
LA based Ice Dreamery once concocted an Old Bay ice cream sandwich by putting Old Bay flavored ice cream between two crab cakes. On the one hand, I say kudos for trying. On the other hand, they used, god forbid canned crab, so this effort automatically rates as an epic fail. Now, had they used fresh crab, well that might have been a different story. Nevertheless, I am cutting the folks at Ice Dreamery a bit of slack since they live in Los Angeles and are probably unaware of the mortal sin they committed.
In short, we in the Baltimore area are a bit crazy about our Old Bay. And it is a staple in just about everyone’s pantry. If you haven’t tried it yet in your own cooking, come on down. We will show you how it’s done. Be sure to order a Crabby Bloody Mary while you wait, rimmed in Old Bay of course.