A bit of history on the German-born Baltimore man who invented Old Bay seasoning
As crab season peaks, it’s time to revisit the remarkable life of Gustav Brunn.
Born in 1893 in southern Germany, Brunn worked in Europe as a spice merchant, selling seasoning to sausage makers, according to historian Deborah Weiner. She wrote about Brunn in a book she co-authored, “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore.”
After the rise of the Nazis, Brunn was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He was released after two weeks, and, in 1938, fled to Baltimore with his wife.
With the encouragement of his friends in the Jewish community here, Brunn started his own spice company, capitalizing on his ability to speak German at a time when many German-speaking immigrants lived here. He used a spice grinding machine brought with him from Europe, said Weiner.
Across the street from his downtown spice shop was the wholesale fish market. Seafood purveyors were some of Brunn’s best customers.
“The people who sold crabs and shrimp, they made up their own spice blends,” said Weiner. Brunn “thought he could do a better blend than the seafood purveyors themselves were coming up with,” said Weiner.
Brunn tweaked the basic recipe that many sellers already used. An antique bottle on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry lists the ingredients: They include laurel leaves, mustard, salt, pepper, cardamom, cloves, paprika and ginger.
The concoction was called “Delicious brand shrimp and crab seasoning.”
A friend from the Jewish community worked in advertising and suggested something catchier. They used the name of a local steamship line: Old Bay.
At first, Brunn recounted in an oral history, area seafood merchants were reluctant to try the new spice blend, sure that their own was the best. But one day, he convinced a seafood wholesaler on Water Street to take a sample.
“And this man’s business increased with it,” Brunn told the interviewer in 1980. “You see, they liked it, when he sold his crabs, they liked it a whole lot better than the others … so I got one customer after another. And these seafood men here in the city and in the whole area must have it today.”