The Measure of Old Bay
After 70 Years, Still Pouring It on Strong

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself without a can of Old Bay? There are people out there who worry about this.

"Unless you like to get strip-searched, it is best to have your Old Bay can in your checked baggage," warns Deborah Fedorchak Liberatore, who, for the record, has never been strip-searched for carrying Old Bay. "Pack a small stash in your carry-on baggage, just in case your luggage gets lost."

Liberatore, 57, of Floyd, Va., has other helpful hints, too, most of which she has posted to Old Bay's Facebook fan page. Some are practical: Old Bay is for more than just crabs. Try it in salsa, on fried green tomatoes or in a stir-fry. Others are less so: Did you know you can dress up your Old Bay can? Liberatore has posted pictures of Mr. Old Bay Head, with two lemons for his eyes and a tomato nose and a lemon peel mouth; the Old Bay bride, with a doily veil, and the Parisian Old Bay, with a tiny beret fixed at a jaunty angle.

Along with Liberatore, the seafood spice has amassed 44,785 fans on Facebook, and counting. Michael Harms, a 34-year-old Baltimore transplant to San Francisco, has a 4-by-6-inch tattoo of the Old Bay can on his calf. Charlie Phillips composed an ode to the spice sung to the tune of "On Top of Old Smokey." Probably only bacon inspires fiercer loyalty. And bacon, it has been noted, tastes pretty good sprinkled with a little Old Bay.

Only a select group of foods can claim the cult status of Old Bay. As the spice celebrates its 70th anniversary, the retro-, primary-colored can is a visual icon as familiar to many as Campbell Soup. The seasoning, once used for crabs and shrimp in the Chesapeake Bay, is now available in all 50 states and used on french fries, pizza and popcorn and more.

Old Bay Seasoning was the invention of Gustav Brunn, a German Jew who emigrated to Baltimore in 1938. An experienced spice merchant, Brunn soon landed a job at McCormick & Co., which wanted him to develop blends for meatpackers who were making products including sausages and hot dogs. It was a short gig: Two days after being hired, he was let go because he was Jewish, says his son Ralph, now 84. (McCormick spokeswoman Laurie Harrsen says the company has no records of Brunn's firing and points to its "longstanding commitment to diversity.")

If it weren't for the firing, Old Bay might never have come into being. In September 1939, Brunn rented a second-floor office and opened the Baltimore Spice Co. across from the city's wholesale fish market. Seafood merchants would come in and buy a few pounds of black pepper, red pepper and celery seed, Ralph remembers: "He was curious what concoctions they were making. With his background and experience, he thought maybe he could improve on it."

Brunn's blend was originally named Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning. After the war, he renamed it Old Bay, the nickname of the Baltimore Steam Packet Co., which ran ships from Baltimore to Norfolk.

The predominant ingredients were no secret: red and black pepper, salt, celery seed and dry mustard. But Gustav added minor quantities of more than half a dozen other spices, including ginger, laurel and bay leaf, so that his blend would be difficult to replicate. "They had no relation to the main flavors," said Ralph Brunn. "But they combined and created a background that rounded out the flavor. He didn't anticipate that."

Old Bay gained a following, but it was purely a local one. Baltimore Spice made most of its money devising custom blends for meat and snack companies; one of Brunn's customers was Planters dry-roasted peanuts. When Brunn sold the company in 1985, Old Bay made up just 2 to 3 percent of sales. The company changed hands several times. In 1990, Old Bay ended up, ironically, in the hands of McCormick, and, more specifically, 31-year-old New York salesman Steve Giegerich.

Nineteen years later, Giegerich is still what he calls "the Pied Piper for brand." During baseball season, you're likely to find him at Orioles games dressed in an Old Bay hat and T-shirt, handing out sample packs. "You have to put it in their mouths. No matter how good your product is, unless they taste it, you're never going to convince them to eat it."

Giegerich put Old Bay in the mouths of customers around the country. He gave free samples to seafood sellers at grocery stores. He packaged them in with the Sunday newspaper supplement. He insisted that Old Bay was for more than just crabs. "They don't have crabs everywhere," he said. "So we repositioned it for shrimp, corn on the cob and french fries."

Today, McCormick sells 50 million ounces of Old Bay annually, up 30 percent over the last decade. The company has also added nearly a dozen new products to the Old Bay line including low-sodium Old Bay, Old Bay with garlic and herbs, Old Bay with lemon and herbs and Old Bay Rub. The mid-Atlantic remains Old Bay's stronghold, but Los Angeles and Chicago are in the top 20 markets. There's still work to be done in Wichita, Kan., the worst-performing market for the seafood spice.

Old Bay purists dislike the "use-it-for-everything" ethos. A crab cake isn't a crab cake without Old Bay, says Nancy Longo, the chef at the Pierpoint restaurant in Baltimore. French fries are fine, too. But there's a lot of salt, and the strong celery flavor can overwhelm foods unless used sparingly. As for the flavored versions, such as lemon and herb? "Sacrilegious," she said.

Most fans, however, embrace new ideas. Take Charlie Phillips, a real estate agent in Greensboro, Md., who has been eating Old Bay for as long as he can remember. He estimates that his family goes through about 12 six-ounce cans each summer and one smaller 2.6-ounce can every month the rest of the year. Old Bay's lemon and herb blend goes on a Dungeness crab and pineapple pasta salad. He uses the garlic and herb for grilling and roasting meats. In the autumn, he sprinkles Old Bay on pumpkin seeds before toasting them.

Liberatore still occasionally craves what her mother called Old Bay sandwiches: two slices of bread slathered with Old Bay mayonnaise. Harms adds Old Bay to barbecue sauce and sprinkles it on "fake meat" such as seitan because, he says, "a lot of people are vegetarians out in San Francisco."

There is one culinary direction in which even the most die-hard fans don't want to go: dessert. Indeed, the only person interviewed who confessed to having given it a try was chef Longo. In 2001, she made an Old Bay cheesecake to spite "Today Show" host Bryant Gumbel, who had mocked Maryland on the air as a place where they put Old Bay on everything. "It was completely disgusting," she remembers.

To Ralph Brunn, the obsession with Old Bay is heartwarming, if a little curious. "It's a pretty good product," he says. "But I use very little seasoning in my own food. Practically none. Though when we cook shrimp, we do use Old Bay."

* * *

Related: When the Spice Is Right: Creative Ways to Use Old Bay

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company