If you’ve ever been anywhere near a crab feast or shrimp boil, then you’ve probably enjoyed Old Bay Seasoning. Some of you may even have a can on your boat. And even if not, you’ve probably seen the distinctive yellow and blue can in the grocery store.
But what you may not know is where the seasoning got its name: it has its roots in boats… big ones.
To understand the cult of Old Bay, you first have to know the inspiration behind the seafood seasoning’s creation. Back in the 1930s in Baltimore, MD, blue crabs were so plentiful that pubs, taverns, and bars offered the crustaceans for free to draw folks into their establishments. Since plain steamed crabs don’t exactly draw a thirst, bars started smothering them with mounds of salty, spiced seasonings. Not many things go better with crabs than beer. You get the picture.
Enter Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant who founded Baltimore Spice Company in 1939, right across from a Baltimore seafood market. After selling black pepper, red pepper, and celery seed to the merchants across the street, Brunn decided to create his own blend, first calling it “Delicious Brand Crab and Shrimp Seasoning.” It soon made its way on top of crabs everywhere.
The seasoning’s nautical flair came when Brunn changed its name to “Old Bay” after World War II. His inspiration for the name came from the Old Bay Line, which was a nickname for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, a steamship line that ran service between Baltimore, Norfolk, VA, and Washington, DC, from 1840 to 1962. The company had 26 steamships in service during the 122 years it was in business.
Of note to boaters is that the company’s City of Richmond and City of Norfolk ships were the first commercial passenger ships to be equipped with radar, in 1946.
Old Bay’s primary ingredients (red and black pepper, salt, celery seed, and paprika) aren’t a mystery, but the ratios are a closely guarded secret. Old Bay was purchased by McCormick & Company in 1990 and is still a favorite at crab feasts everywhere (over 50 million ounces of Old Bay were sold last year).
The Old Bay Line unfortunately ceased service in 1962 with the expansion of road and air travel.