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Chesapeake "Old Bay" Seasoning

Becky Johnson

Chesapeake Bay Seasoning was created by Gustav Brunn, a German-Jewish spice merchant who fled the Nazis in 1938. He immigrated to America, packing among his meager items his hand-cranked spice grinder. He and his family landed in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was hired at the Baltimore-based McCormick Spice Company. Unfortunately, after a few days on the job, McCormick told Brunn that his lack of English was an issue and he was let go from his position at the company. Brunn felt that he was fired because McCormick learned that he was Jewish.

Unable to find another job, he did the entrepreneurial thing and went into business for himself. He created his company, Baltimore Spice Company in a space opposite Baltimore’s Wholesale Fish Market. Brunn started his business selling spice blends for pickles and cured meats that were common in Germany.

Brunn observed the local Baltimore passion for hard-shell blue crabs, and saw an opportunity. He created a blend of celery salt, mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika that pleased the palettes of many seafood connoisseurs. The celery salt and bay were the stars of the mix; he only added the mace, cardamom and other aromatics to cloak his secret recipe. He didn’t anticipate that the spices with which one would not normally flavor seafood worked well together.

Baltimore Spice Company remained a family-run business until the 1980s when Brunn sold his company. The company changed many hands until in 1985 (ironically) McCormick purchased the rights to the brand and blend. Surprisingly, amidst all the corporate wrangling, Brunn’s original recipe has not been changed.

Chesapeake seasoning is for more than just crabs. Try it in salsa, on fried green tomatoes or in a stir-fry. It goes well on shrimp, corn on the cob and French fries.

There are many dyed-in-the-wool purists who will only use it on steamed blue crabs, while there are other people who refuse to be without a can in their pantry, no matter what its expiration date. When my siblings and I cleaned out my late mother’s pantry, we found a can of Old Bay that was ten years old. The week before she died, I’m positive she had used it on something she cooked…



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