It’s not hard in Maryland to find the blue-and-yellow packaging of Old Bay seasoning. It’s on grocery store shelves and served in restaurants. It’s printed on T-shirts, masks, mugs, hats, dog leashes. The spice is sprinkled by die-hards on pizza, chicken, popcorn, hot chocolate. It’s infused, by Old Bay brand owner McCormick, into products like Old Bay hot sauce and Old Bay-flavored vodka.
Last week, the brand introduced its latest addition: Old Bay Goldfish, because putting the Maryland spice on real seafood wasn’t enough.
Jill Pratt, chief marketing officer for Maryland-based McCormick, said the snack fusion was a direct result of demands from fans on social media who had been pairing the two foods together themselves for years. Bags of the new crackers sold out online in nine hours, Pratt said.
“For the past few years, people have shared their excitement about the possibility of OLD BAY collaborating with Goldfish,” she wrote in an email. “There was even a change.org petition created which is a true testament to how passionate our fans are when it comes to showing their dedication and love for OLD BAY.”
The roots of that love affair, and of the spice itself, go back decades — to a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and landed in Baltimore with his family and a spice grinder.
Gustav Brunn, born in 1893, had been a successful spice merchant in Wertheim, Germany, where he specialized in sausage spices before the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s, after the antisemitic attacks of Kristallnacht, he and his family fled to the United States. When Brunn struggled to find work in Baltimore, he decided to start his own spice business. He set up shop across from the Baltimore wholesale fish market on the Inner Harbor, and the Baltimore Spice Company was born.
At first, Brunn sold just individual ingredients such as red pepper, celery seed and mustard. But over time, he noticed that the fish market vendors — many of whom were steaming crabs — used their own spice blends. Brunn thought he could make a better one.
Brunn’s son, Ralph, who still lives in the Baltimore area, said the law required his father to publish the ingredients of his seasoning. To make his recipe look more complex, Gustav Brunn decided to add very small amounts of ingredients that “you would think had nothing to do with steaming crabs,” Ralph Brunn said, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
“Lo and behold, a very unusual thing happened,” Ralph Brunn, 97, said. “They gave a wonderful overtone to the main ingredients that were there, and they’re the ones that created the flavor Old Bay, which is, of course, so popular today.”
At first, since they had their own blends, the fish market vendors rejected his father’s attempts to sell them his, Ralph Brunn said. But then Gustav Brunn gave one small crab steamer a free sample, and he came back for more, and others in the fish market followed. Sales took off from there. Brunn later named his seasoning after a Chesapeake Bay steamship line that ran between Baltimore and Norfolk — Old Bay — and began selling it to grocery stores 80 years ago, in 1942.
Competitors did try to copy the mixture, Ralph Brunn said. Because of his father’s additions, they couldn’t.
The original spice grinder that was used to create the seasoning now sits on display in the Baltimore Museum of Industry, along with an overview of Gustav Brunn’s story. Claire Mullins, the museum’s director of marketing, said it’s her favorite artifact in the collection.
“This is a really lovely story of an immigrant success, and a positive impact on a community,” Mullins said. “It’s such a classic American success story of somebody really filling a need that we didn’t know we had as a society. And where would we be these days without Old Bay?”
Ralph Brunn was just 14 years old when his father started the Baltimore Spice Company, but after serving in the military and graduating from Johns Hopkins, he returned to the family business. He worked with his father until the 1960s, when Gustav retired and the son took over. Ralph Brunn said Old Bay made up only a small percentage of the Baltimore Spice Company’s business while he was with the company, a time in which it grew out of the region and opened factories across the world.
“I was able to achieve with Baltimore Spice Company national growth, international growth,” Brunn said. “I was able to do that by the fact that my father had built a very solid foundation.”
The Brunn family sold the company to another spice conglomerate in the 1980s. McCormick purchased the Old Bay product line in 1990.
“It made sense. OLD BAY is an iconic brand founded in Baltimore, beloved and embraced as a symbol of Maryland pride,” wrote Pratt, the McCormick executive. McCormick, she noted, “has been headquartered in Baltimore for over 130 years.”
Since that acquisition, Old Bay has only continued to grow in its partnerships with new products and branding. Its most loyal fans have celebrated the spice mixture with tattoos of the classic logo and Old Bay-themed weddings. Pratt said McCormick plans to continue to respond to the fandom with new products, too.
“Our fans can expect to enjoy a lot more exciting things from Old Bay over the next few months,” she said. In the meantime, they can find the new Old Bay Goldfish on grocery shelves through this summer.
Ralph Brunn, for his part, probably won’t be trying the crackers anytime soon. He’s just not that fond, he said, of overly spiced foods.