To Marylanders, Old Bay is more than a seasoning: It’s a symbol of state pride. The yellow and blue tin with a red lid is tattooed on calves or placed in window sills along with a crab and decorative mallets. A T-shirt proclaims: “I put Old Bay on my Old Bay.”
83% of the state’s residents reported a favorable opinion of Old Bay, according to The Goucher Poll, a political survey of 808 adults.
Yet the seasoning’s popularity belies a little-known truth: cooks in restaurants and crab shacks rarely use Old Bay to steam crabs.
The Baltimore Sun called dozens of crab houses in the region, and the majority — 18 out of 30 — said they steam crabs with either J.O. No. 2 seasoning or a custom blend made by the Halethorpe-based spice company. Six said they use blends from Harbor Spice, a company headquartered in Forest Hill. Just one mentioned steaming crabs with Old Bay as part of a custom mix.
Whichever seasoning they use, crab houses take pride in their blends.
“It’s not J.O. like everyone else, it’s Old Bay and our own special ingredient,” said Tenisha Byrd, the manager at Gaffney’s in Highlandtown. The family-owned crab house puts Old Bay into its seasoning because it was part of the original recipe when it opened half a century ago.
“That’s what makes Gaffney’s what it is,” she said.
Some crab purveyors say that Old Bay on its own is too fine for steaming; the spice blend can melt off in the steaming process. J.O.’s No. 2 crab seasoning has large flakes of salt that help it to adhere to the crabs, according to chef Lupe Bueno of Nick’s Fish House. Bueno and the staff at Nick’s use a custom blend made by J.O. Spice Co.
Old Bay “is a horrible seasoning [for steaming crabs],” said Pete Hellmann of Pete’s Crabs in Parkville. He relies on Harbor Spice to make a customized blend.
“Old Bay is made for crab cakes and for steaming shrimp, not for crabs,” he said.
There’s also the cost.
A two-pound bottle of the Harbor Spice Co.’s 1394, described as an all-purpose seasoning sells for $7.50; the same size bottle of J.O. is $9.25, according to the company’s online store. By comparison, two pounds of Old Bay would cost around $18 at Shoppers, a regional supermarket chain.
“No one uses Old Bay anymore; it’s just too expensive,” said Jackie Hart of Mother Shuckers, a Martinsburg, W.Va., crab house formerly located in Anne Arundel County. When it comes time to find the seasoning for her crabs, Hart drives from West Virginia to J.O.’s Halethorpe factory, where she loads up on No. 2 seasoning and custom mallets and tumblers.
The aroma of spices emanates from the factory like a Turkish bazaar and lingers on one’s clothes for the rest of the day. After years working here, employees say they can’t smell it anymore, but on days when red pepper is mixed, their eyes might start watering.
Inside the gift shop at the Halethorpe factory, an engraved travel mug proclaims Baltimore’s insider spice gospel: “Those who know use J.O.”
“Summer is our crazy time,” said Brittany Osborne, 26, who runs the company while her parents, owners Ginger and Donald Ports, are meeting with clients in Florida. The company distributes to over 900 crab and seafood houses in the region, with a total of 3.5 to 5 million pounds of crab seasoning soldannually. The factory employs about 25 to 30 workers, including college students who work over the summer.
Inside, white bags of salt the size of Jabba the Hutt line the warehouse, along with boxes of spice. Workers use a crane to load a giant bag of spice into a mixer. In the next room, Osborne’s sister, Bethany Ports, hand-fills small jars of Cajun seasoning. It’s a tedious process, Ports says, but “it’s got to get done.” Their brother Tyler Ports also works in the warehouse. “If we’re short a driver one day and he needs take out one of the trucks, he can,” Osborne said.
Osborne and her siblings are the fourth generation of her family to work at the factory. It was founded by Osborne’s great grandfather, James Ozzle (“J.O.”) Strigle, a waterman from Tangier Island, Va., in 1945.
It was around that same year that Gustav Brunn, a German Jewish Holocaust survivor who escaped a concentration camp and moved to Baltimore, decided to rename his own brand of crab seasoning. Brunn, the founder of the Baltimore Spice Co., had originally called it “India Girl,” according to The Sun archives. A friend who worked in advertising suggested he name it after a popular steamship company. In 1943, he called it Old Bay.
Today, Old Bay is strong in the public imagination, like Kleenex is to facial tissue, or Starbucks to coffee. “You and I go to Giant, and we just see Old Bay and we think that’s it,” said Mark Smith of Brooklyn Park’s Crab Depot. “But 90% of the people working in crab houses will tell you J.O. is the go-to.”
It helps that Old Bay is readily available on grocery shelves. McCormick, which purchased Old Bay, is a multi-billion dollar company that spends more than $100 million annually on marketing for all of its products in the U.S. and abroad. A spokeswoman for the Old Bay brand did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
J.O. has a much more limited budget, advertising on local radio stations and on their company’s Facebook page, and is sold mostly online and in their company store. Harbor Spice, however, is even less visible to the average consumer.
The owner of Harbor Spice declined to be interviewed for this article, but fans can go to the Forest Hill factory to sample and purchase its products for themselves.
J.O.’s Osborne and her family bear no ill will toward their bigger competitor. “My mom says there’s a place for both of us,” Osborne said.
But the word about J.O. is starting to spread, Osborne said.
A few weeks ago, her mother posted a meme to the J.O. Facebook page. It was photo of a man with a shocked expression on his face. “When you find out that seasoning you love on those crabs from your favorite crab house was J.O., not Old Bay,” the caption read, “… and your whole life has been a lie.”