Old Bay Spices Up My Life | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Old Bay Spices Up My Life

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the best spice blend ever known to humankind: Old Bay Seasoning. Mrs. Dash may have low sodium and Emeril may be bam-tastic, but no other spice has the kick and the nostalgia of summers past like Old Bay. According to the Maryland-based company, the history...

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Old Bay on Chesapeake Bay crabs. Delicious. Image courtesy of the author.


This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the best spice blend ever known to humankind: Old Bay Seasoning. Mrs. Dash may have low sodium and Emeril may be bam-tastic, but no other spice has the kick and the nostalgia of summers past like Old Bay. According to the Maryland-based company, the history of Old Bay goes as follows:
German immigrant Gustav Brunn settled in Baltimore, among the crab lovers of Maryland. In 1939, he started a spice business and rented a space on Baltimore’s Market Place, opposite the Wholesale Fish Market. With only a small spice grinder and mixer, he began creating the secret recipe that would become OLD BAY Seasoning.
Thanks to Mr. Brunn, Old Bay is a Chesapeake Bay institution that packs a wallop of a punch on fresh corn on the cob, blue crabs, shrimp, and well, pretty much anything else. Similar in flavor to a Cajun southern spice, Old Bay is a delicious combination of celery salt, mustard, pepper (both red and black), bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika.

Yet it wasn't until I went up to school in Boston that I realized that my second-favorite spicy seasoning (second to the dangerous Sriracha Rooster Sauce) was a regional treat.

One of the best non-crab uses for Old Bay is on french fries. Go to a boardwalk in Ocean City and you can't walk a few feet without running into the seasoned french fries. But while I was up in school in Boston, I ventured to historic-meeting-house-turned-food-court-tourist-trap Faneuil Hall, avoided the chainariffic options, and ordered some fresh-cut french fries from a seafood stand. My requests for Old Bay were returned with blank stares. I am still disappointed, seven years later. New England may have clam chowder, but their flavor palate could use some work.

The Internet Food Association blew up a couple of months ago when their blasphemous New York blogger insulted the use of Old Bay on crabs, which is kind of like being angry about having Thousand Island dressing on your Reuben sandwich. Fortunately, the other IFA bloggers smacked their colleague down. I was reminded of the online debate the most recent time I cracked open some Chesapeake Bay crabs and was served a bowl of vinegar and a bowl of Old Bay with my crabs; this was new, but it was fantastic. Dip the lump crab meet in the vinegar, then into the Old Bay, and I'm smiling wider than I possibly can.

A last note—beware of imitation Old Bay. Not that the imitators aren't good, but you just can't call them Old Bay. Our web producer Ryan calls Utz's " The Crab Chip" "a little bag of heaven," but they don't use Old Bay. Five Guys fries are legendary, but the Web is inconclusive as to whether or not their cajun fries (definitely superior to the already amazing regular fries) use Old Bay or not.

UPDATE: Just in from Five Guys HQ -- they use McCormick's Cajun Seasoning, not Old Bay. I won't hold it against them.

The summer is winding down, which means crab season is almost over. So what else should I season with Old Bay? Any suggestions?
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