"Taste and smell alone ... bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection."- "Remembrance of Things Past"
No, Marcel Proust didn't grow up in Baltimore. You can tell that because what arouses his powerful memories, what helps unleash his perfect storm of recollection, not to mention an ocean of words, is a taste of a certain cake, a petite madeleine soaked in tea. Any fool knows that if Proust had grown up on Eastern Avenue and not near the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the fuel of his reverie would have been Old Bay Seasoning.
The smell alone might well have been enough. One whiff and there you are, or there you were. The back yard, the summer breeze, the faces of dear ones lost and departed, the abundance of crabs encrusted with this particular orange melange. What was it again? Celery seed, salt, mustard, pepper - the list goes on. It's one thing to read the ingredients on the distinctly retro yellow-and-blue can of Old Bay, it's another to say just exactly what Old Bay is, what it was and what it became.
You can stand in the Celebrate Maryland store on the main concourse at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and have a look in the front window and wonder if Old Bay can be reduced to certain occult ratios of paprika to cardamom to ginger to mace. Because the front window lately displays all the state colors: the black, gold, red and white of the Maryland flag and the stacks of yellow and blue cans of Old Bay Seasoning.
Judy Bolly, who works at the Celebrate Maryland store, says she smells Old Bay and soon enough she's a girl again and her aunt Lorraine Stites is alive again and the family is all together at Aunt Lorraine's place in Glen Burnie and the grown-ups are back from the crab house on Route 40 with a bushel and so the cracking and picking begins.
"I grew up with Old Bay," says Bolly. "The family didn't use anything but Old Bay."
It's part of the landscape, it's in the grain. It's like the Orioles or National Bohemian beer, says John Shields, Baltimore native, cookbook author and host of a Maryland Public Television show on Chesapeake Bay food. Literally, he says, it's in the air.
"We did a lot of steaming of crabs outside," says Shields, "and I just remember that humid summer air with the aromas of Old Bay wafting through it. It could just take me back, it would transport me to another time."
Shields is now running Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, having returned a few years ago to Baltimore after 17 years in California. He was in Berkeley running Gertie's Chesapeake Bay Cafe, ordering Old Bay in large quantities from Baltimore. Evidently there were enough people out there who had been through the Baltimore area or lived around here and heard about Old Bay. They'd be calling his restaurant asking if he used it.
"For them," says Shields, "that meant that you were an authentic Chesapeake establishment."
This is a bit ironic, seeing as how many of the best-known Baltimore crab houses say they have their own seasoning blends and do not use Old Bay on their steamed crabs. On their steamed shrimp, maybe and perhaps in the crab cakes, but not on the steamed crabs.
Obrycki's, for example, a big name in the Baltimore crab world, does not use Old Bay on steamed crabs. Also claiming their own recipes for steamed crab seasoning are Phillips, Gunning's Crab House, Crab Quarters, Grab a Crab, Bay Island Seafood, Jimmy Cantler's near Annapolis and Crab Town, U.S.A. in Glen Burnie, to name a few.
Many restaurants say they have their blends made up by J. O. Spice Co. Inc., a firm established in town a few years after the Baltimore Spice Co., which made Old Bay before the brand was bought by McCormick & Co. Inc. in 1990.
In the days before Old Bay, the oyster was king and crabs were lowly things indeed, abundant and cheap as dirt. When crab was served, it was most likely the pre-picked meat in a variety of preparations: deviled, creamed, in casseroles or, of course, as crab cakes. Steamed hard crabs were popular chiefly among Eastern Shore watermen until refrigeration and transportation improved and seafood purveyors started shipping them to retail stores around 1915.
And so the crab boom went, the catch soaring from 6 million pounds in 1890 to 68 million pounds in 1930. Crabs were served at amusement parks and taverns. They were so plentiful that some waterfront bars served them gratis, as bars today put out bowls of popcorn and peanuts loaded with salt. Old Bay? The only Old Bay folks knew was the Old Bay Line, the common nickname for the Baltimore Steam Packet Co. that had been running ships between Baltimore and Virginia since 1840.
Nobody had heard of Gustav C. Brunn, either.
He was in the spice business in Germany and doing well. In December 1938, he came to the United States with his wife and two children in flight from the Nazis. Brunn, who was Jewish, was arrested in November 1938 in a mass roundup of Jewish men and held for a couple of weeks at the Buchenwald concentration camp. His wife was able to arrange his release by bribing the Gestapo.
Brunn settled in Baltimore, near one of his uncles. Work was hard to come by. On the strength of his spice experience, he landed a job at McCormick & Co. That lasted only a few days. As Gustav Brunn recalled in an interview with The Sun in the early 1980s, it appeared that they let him go after finding out he was Jewish.
"They told him to go see the Jewish charities, that's how he was fired," says his son, Ralph, 75, the semiretired president of Allied Exports. Gustav died in 1985 at 92.
Brunn established the Baltimore Spice Co. on the second floor of 26 Market Place, across from the wholesale fish market. From there he couldn't help but notice the crab action.
Pretty soon seafood dealers were stopping in, looking for spices for their steamed crabs. A little pepper, a little salt, some mustard, who knows what else? Brunn took mental notes, started fiddling with seasoning blends.
Celery seed, some salt, a little black pepper, some red pepper, mustard. Add some paprika, some cloves ...
It took a while, but the stuff caught on. Brunn would wrap it in paper packages and give it to local seafood dealers to give to their customers. He'd say: When they ask how to prepare steamed shrimp or crabs, suggest this.
But the blend needed a name. As many of the spices in this seafood seasoning were exotic, Brunn decided to call his new blend "India Girl." The box - it was a cardboard box before it was a can - carried a picture of an attractive woman with dark skin. It sold this way for a couple of years, until a friend of Brunn's, a fellow in the advertising business, got a better idea.
As Ralph recalls, the name change had to have come before 1943. He remembers it happened before he entered military service, before he returned to Europe as a rifleman with Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army.
The ad man, for unknown reasons, thought about the Old Bay Line, this popular name for the steamship company. It was already in the lingo and it wasn't a trademark.
Brunn took the ad man's advice. Old Bay became a registered trademark of the Baltimore Spice Co., a new thing with an instant sense of tradition.
In a field of Chesapeake seafood seasonings - J. O., Wye River, among others - Old Bay has somehow come to stand for a regional identity. This despite the fact that, by Ralph Brunn's own acknowledgment, Baltimore Spice never promoted the brand. The company was devoted chiefly to serving big wholesale customers: meatpackers, canners, snack-food makers. Old Bay was chiefly a retail product, representing at most maybe 2 percent of Baltimore Spice Co.'s business.
Still, Baltimore Spice was loath to relinquish Old Bay. Ralph Brunn says McCormick, which was geared to consumer markets, made offers for Old Bay over the years, but Gustav always had a bad taste in his mouth from his experience there. Baltimore Spice never sold. Eventually, once the Brunns were out of the picture, McCormick bought the brand in 1990 for a reported amount between $11 million and $14 million from the British company that had taken over the corporation that acquired Baltimore Spice in 1985.
So now the company that in a less-enlightened time found Gustav Brunn unacceptable now owns his most famous creation. And while Brunn narrowly escaped Germany with his life, the business he founded, Baltimore Spice Co., is now owned by a German company, Fuchs Gewerze GmBH.
And Old Bay goes on. McCormick has been expanding its range geographically and gastronomically, pushing the brand on the East and West coasts. Through cooking contests and cookbooks, McCormick has been touting uses of Old Bay beyond crab and shrimp: chicken, salads, vegetables, hors d'oeuvres. Old Bay marketing manager Art Zito says he's even seen a chocolate cake recipe using Old Bay.
No less a chef than Patrick O'Connell, Maryland native and co-owner of one of the country's best restaurants at the Inn at Little Washington, can reel off a number of gourmet applications of Old Bay. Although he says the seasoning is used at the restaurant only in a crayfish boil and sometimes in soup, he says it's nice in "little savory napoleons" made with phyllo dough and wild mushrooms or phyllo dough and shrimp or lobster salad.
"It has a wonderful sort of old-timey feeling about it," says O'Connell, who grew up in Prince George's County. "And it reminds you, for me always, of crabs, crab houses and summer and home. And that's often the power of food that it takes you back and connects you with things you enjoyed when you were slightly more innocent."
Hmmm. Sounds vaguely like a certain French novel.
"Now, there's another one," he says, always thinking of possibilities, "Old Bay madeleines, an accompaniment to fish chowder."
Old Bay Hot Crab Dip
Serves 8 to 10
1 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 cups grated Cheddar cheese, divided use
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning, plus a dash more
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon McCormick Dry Mustard
1 pound fresh lump crab meat assorted crackers and/or pita chips
Combine mayonnaise, 3/4 cup cheese, 1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning, Worcestershire sauce and mustard; fold in crab meat. Spoon mixture into 1-quart casserole and top with remaining cheese. Sprinkle with a dash of Old Bay Seasoning. Bake in 350-degree oven 15 minutes or until mixture begins to bubble around edges. Serve with assorted crackers and/or pita chips.
Old-Bay-Seasoned Fried Chicken
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup flour
1/4 cup Old Bay Seasoning, plus more, if desired, divided use
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons water
2 cups cooking oil
2-3 pounds chicken parts
In large plastic bag, combine flour and 1/4 cup Old Bay Seasoning. In shallow dish combine egg and water. Heat cooking oil in large skillet. Dip chicken in egg mixture, then place, a few pieces at a time, in plastic bag and shake to coat.
Cook in oil over medium heat about 20 minutes per side. If desired, sprinkle with additional seasoning before serving.
Old Bay Crab Cakes
Makes 4 servings
2 slices dried bread, crusts removed small amount of milk
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon McCormick Parsley Flakes
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 pound fresh lump crab meat Break bread into small pieces and moisten with milk. Add remaining ingredients.
Shape into patties.
Broil or fry until golden-brown on both sides.
Hearty Beef-Vegetable Stew
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning, divided use (or more to taste)
3 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of fat 4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
3 carrots, scraped and sliced
1/2 medium onion, sliced
1 cup water
Sprinkle 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning over beef.
Sprinkle remaining 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning over vegetables.
Place water, chuck roast and vegetables in crockpot and cook on high for 6 hours.- Recipes from McCormick & Co.