“DELICIOUS BRAND SHRIMP AND CRAB SEASONING”
Gustav Brunn, a German Jew, was born in 1893. As a young man he worked in the European spice trade. Spices were in short supply after World War I and, identifying an opportunity, he started a wholesale spice and seasoning business in Wertheim, Germany, selling his products to the food industries.
In response to the rise of antisemitism in the Nazi party Brunn moved his company to Frankfurt, Germany, but the move didn’t protect him. On November 9, 1938 the Nazis initiated a massive pogrom (Kristallnacht) against the Jewish population and Brunn was arrested and sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Brunn’s wife paid a lawyer 10,000 marks to obtain his release (possibly by bribing Nazi soldiers) and the parents and their two children immediately emigrated to the United States.
Brunn arrived in New York City with little more than the clothes on his back and a small spice grinder under his arm. From New York, the Brunns moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Gustav had family. He soon was hired by America’s largest spice company, McCormick, but was fired after only a week because his employer found his English language skills inadequate.
In 1939, with funding from the growing and supportive German population in Baltimore, Brunn rented space across from the Wholesale Fish Market, a hub of fish mongers, crabbers and seafood merchants at Baltimore’s market place, and began work on a spice blend for seafood, particularly crab and shrimp. He founded the Baltimore Spice Company and produced what he called the “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning.”
Initially he struggled to convince the locals to use his product. Many had their own secret concoctions and were unwilling to switch. He eventually persuaded one merchant to give his blend a try, and the result was a sensation. Long lines of people formed to try these new spiced crabs, and soon the entire market was using Gustav’s seasoning. What remained, Gustav learned from his son, was to rename the product, since the “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning” was a mouthful. They borrowed a name from a passenger ship service, the Old Bay Line, that sailed Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, and Old Bay Seasoning was born.
It is hard to overstate the impact Old Bay Seasoning has had on the culinary preferences of denizens of the Mid-Atlantic American states. Although still associated with Baltimore, it is popular throughout the Mid-Atlantic, the South, along the Gulf Coast and even in parts of New England. Brunn kept the recipe for his secret combination of 18 mainly savory spices under lock and key (click to see a copycat recipe for Homemade Old Bay Seasoning from epicurious.com).
Initially created to season low country boils, crab cakes, shrimp and other seafood dishes, it is now sprinkled on popcorn, salads, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, bloody Marys and roasted nuts; you will find it in burgers, bread rolls, chicken wings, deviled eggs and omelettes, marinades, compound butters, clam chowders, oyster stews and baked or grilled vegetables. The Charmery, a Baltimore ice cream parlor, offers Old Bay caramel ice cream and the Flying Dog Brewery sells Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale.
McCormick and Co. purchased the rights to the seasoning brand in 1990. They probably would have been better advised to invest in a German translator in 1938 when Herr Brunn first reached Baltimore. And some locals complain that McCormick changed the recipe, reducing the heat of the original; a McCormick spokesperson denies that charge.