Old Bay: The Life of Spice

Story by Rafael Alvarez

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The combo of spices known as Old Bay is orange like the state bird, has the bite of a Chesapeake Bay retriever and sifts finer than the sands of Ocean City. In a mere 80 years, it has become as identifiable with Maryland as the Calvert coat-of-arms on the state flag.

Asked if he had any Old Bay in his kitchen cabinets, one lifetime Marylander whose family has worked the Baltimore waterfront for generations cried out, “Are you kidding?”

In the spice triangle anchored by salt and pepper, Old Bay holds down the third corner throughout the Mid-Atlantic. “Truth is,” said native Baltimorean Pete Genovese, a retired English professor long exiled in Missouri, “I love the stuff.” 

Enough love to sprinkle it over an artichoke casserole? Yep, but not quite enough, however, to blend it into caramel ice cream, a top-selling flavor at the Charmery shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. Genovese doesn’t know what he’s missing. “It’s the flavor that allows us to be hyper-local,” said store owner Laura Alima, whose husband David came up with the recipe.

Invented in Baltimore in 1939, you could replace the outline of Charm City in the middle of a state map with a picture of Old Bay’s yellow, blue and red can, of which some 8.3 million sell annually, and no one would bat an eye. The magical staple also possesses the power of time travel. “One whiff and I’m back in our tiny kitchen on Kentucky Avenue, laughing as my father tries to pick up the live crab that escaped on its way to the steam pot,” said Leo Ryan, Jr., a District Court judge so enamored of all things Baltimore that his Archbishop Curley High School diploma carries more emotional weight than his law degree. Ryan said that if Old Bay needed a slogan (and apparently it doesn’t, so ubiquitous its presence in local kitchens), a good one might be: “Old Bay – it will make you eight-years-old again.” 

But that’s only half the story. The blend of celery salt, crushed red pepper, paprika, black pepper and a handful of unidentified trace ingredients (Nutmeg? Cloves? Cinnamon?) that long kept the copycats confounded could not have achieved iconic status on its own. Much the way Lennon was crucial to McCartney and Abbott would have been a stick of wood without Costello, the potion needed something with which to adhere. That something has the currency of gold in these parts—the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, a statewide industry with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The natives like them steamed—most defiantly not boiled as in other seaports—and crusted with homemade concoctions of which Old Bay is the usual foundation if not the sole seasoning.

Crabs were once so plentiful in the Bay, the Patapsco River, and other tributaries that saloon keepers placed them on the bars (not unlike pretzels, peanuts and pearl onions) to keep customers thirsty. They are now less abundant and far pricier than days gone by. Each year, Chesapeake crab harvest predictions are anticipated more ardently than whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. More and more blue crabs are imported from the Carolinas, Louisiana and Texas for local tables, and the state urges restaurants to let customers know when the crab meat they are serving is from Maryland.

Yet, the crustacean known as callinectus sapidus endures and now and again rebounds in the Immense Protein Factory that is the Chesapeake Bay. The oyster has not been as fortunate, though herculean efforts have saved the bivalves from disappearing altogether. After the Bay’s bounteous oyster harvest collapsed in the mid-20th century from over-fishing and disease, the blue crab became king. Stepping forward to crown the new monarch was a man named Gustav Brunn, born in Bavaria in 1893. Brunn’s beginnings in Baltimore were detailed to the late, great food writer Linda Lowe Morris (1948-2000) when she sat down with Gustav, his wife Bianca and their son Ralph to talk spice in 1982, three years before Gustav’s death at age 92. A spice merchant in the old country, Brunn escaped Nazi Germany with his wife, daughter Lore and Ralph after a bribe bought his way out of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Arriving with his family in New York in 1938, Gustav remembered that he had an uncle who’d emigrated to Baltimore before World War I and headed south for Baltimore with his family and the tool of his trade—a spice grinder as large as a whiskey barrel. (The grinder and Brunn family history are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, 1415 Key Highway in South Baltimore.)

Brunn eventually found work with the spice giant McCormick & Co., then on Light Street across from the Inner Harbor. Two days later, he was fired when management discovered he was Jewish. Welcome to Baltimore, indeed. 

Gustav set up shop on the second floor of 26 Market Place, across from the old municipal fish market off of the Pratt Street waterfront. He called his enterprise the Baltimore Spice Company, for decades a pesky thorn in McCormick’s side. The Great Depression was winding down, the year 1939, which the Brunn family cites as the eureka date (though it may have been 1940) in the creation story of a spice that would become Old Bay. 

While the bulk of his spices went to local meat packers and delicatessens, Gustav began wrapping his concoction in paper and giving it away to seafood retailers who patronized the fish market. He urged them to give it to their patrons to spice up their recipes, particularly for shellfish. It caught on after a crab steamer near the fish market tried some at Gustav’s urging, pronounced it “good,” and began using
it regularly. 

In Brunn’s day, Old Bay never surpassed five percent of the Baltimore Spice Company’s overall sales, yet, wrote Morris, it became “the incense of summer” in Baltimore. In a nod to the mysticism of the East, the aromatic spice was known as “India Girl,” and some labeling (it came in a cardboard box before being packaged in cans) simply said, “DELICIOUS.”

The name Old Bay, which now seems as perfect as beer with crabs, was the suggestion of a friend in the ad business. It soon connected with folks like the Lukowski family, a clan with roots in 19th century Fells Point.

Jerome “Romey” Lukowski, a tugboat man and the late father of retired Chesapeake Bay pilot Gregory Lukowski, grew up above a saloon and seaman’s boarding house at 1718 Thames Street. Romey was still a kid in the decade that brought Gustav Brunn to Baltimore, and from the foot of Broadway, he could see steam ships running passengers down to Norfolk and back. One was named the “Old Bay Line,” and that’s the name that Gustav’s friend said was ideal for the flavor that had found favor with steamed crab lovers. 

“When the guys cooked on the tugs, they’d always doctor-up their meals, adding a little of this and that to soups and stews,” said Gregory, who caught many a crab on the Wye River with his father. “We’d bring the crabs home live to steam, and Dad would doctor up the Old Bay with some dry mustard, black pepper, rock salt.” Just like Ralph Brunn couldn’t tell you exactly what his father put in his crab seasoning, neither can Gregory remember exactly what and how much his father tweaked the recipe, only that if you started with Old Bay you couldn’t go wrong.

Now owned by the company that once showed Gustav Brunn the door because of his religion, Old Bay makes your lips tingle. And while it doesn’t have the alchemy to turn a glass of beer into wedding wine, it can transform kosher food into a delicacy that a blindfolded diner might believe was a forbidden crab cake.

Old Bay itself is kosher. Crabs and other shellfish displayed on the can are not. Enter, Chaim Silverberg, owner of a Baltimore kosher meat company called CWS and its catering arm, Tripping Kosher. “Baltimore Jews who aren’t [strictly] religious eat crabs the way a Southern Jew sometimes enjoys barbecue,” said Silverberg, neglecting to add that Baltimore Jews who do enjoy steamed crabs often draw the line at enjoying them inside the house. One of the ways Silverberg has provided the cultural experience of the Chesapeake to those who follow Jewish dietary laws is to combine a few old favorites that rarely crossed paths in the past—gefilte fish, matzo and Old Bay. “My crab cakes taste like crab cakes because of Old Bay,” said Silverberg, who uses matzoh meal for the binding. “I fry them up, and aside from the texture, it’s very hard to tell the difference.”

But if you leave Old Bay out of someone’s favorite dish, be it grilled chicken, steamed shrimp or French Fries, they will surely notice. As Andy Farantos found out at his landmark 1927 diner and chili dog oasis on the east side of Baltimore in Highlandtown. “A guy who works at the supermarket across the street comes in here every afternoon at 4:30 on the nose when he gets off work, slaps $3.13 on the counter and orders the same thing,” said Farantos, third-generation owner of G&A Restaurant. “Polish hot dog with onions and chili and Old Bay.”

One day, said Farantos, he neglected to sprinkle Old Bay atop the onions and chili and the customer, a guy by the name of Bunk, was quick to point out the error. “He leans over the counter and says, ‘Hey, you forgot the Old Bay.” On Bunk’s next dozen or so visits for his end-of-the-workday snack, he reminded Farantos of his omission.

“It took me about three weeks to get his trust back and stop reminding me,” said Farantos. 

Old Bay. It’s no joke. 


Rafael Alvarez was a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and wrote for HBO’s The Wire. His new book is Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.