What IS Old Bay, and Why Do People Love It So Much? (2024)

Old Bay Seasoning’s iconic packaging boasts, “For Seafood, Poultry, Salads, Meats.” That’s not inaccurate, but it does undersell the spice blend that’s inspired dozens of recipes for steamed shrimp, fried chicken, aioli, seasoned vodka, spiced oyster shooters, and picklebacks. In fact, Old Bay may be the best-known American spice blend, despite some regional favorites. While other spice blends like curry powders and Chinese five spice vary from cupboard to cupboard, Old Bay is Old Bay across the country.

Most of the flavor comes from mustard, paprika and celery salt, along with mace, nutmeg, bay leaf, red pepper and cardamom, and while it’s an obvious pairing with seafood, it’s also a surprising twist on fried rice and chickpeas. Even now, I’m eating fistfuls of popcorn dusted with Old Bay. For inspiration.

“When I think of Old Bay,” says chef Kelly English of Second Line and Restaurant Iris in Memphis, “I think of my grandmother’s deviled eggs, or everyone’s grandmother’s deviled eggs.”

At many restaurants, chefs make their own Old Bay-esque spice blend that they use to hit different flavor profiles. At English’s restaurants, English finds it works well on mushrooms or roasted winter squash. One of English’s favorite uses for Old Bay is to add contours to the flavor profile of pork belly. “I add cumin to it and then sear the sh*t out of the pork belly before braising it,” he says.

"While other spice blends like curry powders and Chinese five spice vary from cupboard to cupboard, Old Bay is Old Bay across the country."

On its own, Old Bay seems to always be just one note shy of a complete dish. Even on crabs, English points out, it needs to be topped with lemon and cayenne. But that lacuna is perhaps Old Bay’s greatest strength.

Most spice blends on the market—Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning or Cavender’s Greek Seasoning for example—can’t handle any additional spice or flavor without becoming overwhelming. Old Bay has a broad enough base of mild enough spices for cooks to augment it with extra seasoning to take it in a variety of directions. It has the potential to match flavor profiles from Spanish, Hungarian, South Asian, Latin American and Cajun cuisines.

But where did it come from? According to a Saveur story from 2002, during World War II, a Jewish spice merchant named Gustav Brunn fled Germany for Baltimore, where he was hired at soon-to-be spice giant McCormick. He didn't last long there—after three days, he was fired for his lack of English.

Jobless, Brunn began selling German spice mixtures to the locals (German spice was mostly for pickling things and curing meat), and he soon began his quest for the perfect crab seasoning, because, you know, Maryland. He convinced local chefs to start using his “Old Bay” spice mixture, and it became so successful that, after his death, McCormick wound up buying the rights to the recipe.

English believes that Old Bay’s origin story is more American than apple pie (which I I can confirm does not go well with Old Bay). Indeed, Brunn’s story about refugees and weirdly cyclical capitalism is about as close to the American dream as most people get. He produced a crab seasoning that outlasted every other spice blend, that manages to be distinctive and subtle, that makes even non-Marylanders nostalgic, and gives a hell of a kick to a Bloody Mary.

What IS Old Bay, and Why Do People Love It So Much? (2024)
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