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Old Bay’s classic seafood seasoning may be synonymous with summer and steamed crabs, but it’s not only full of flavor, it’s full of history. This spice blend has become an downright fad, transitioning from pure seafood to being poured over eggs or paired with popular snacks and condiments, from goldfish to hot sauce.

For those who grew up near Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, there is a sense of old bay nostalgia. And for good reason: The origins of this unique spice blend actually date back to Baltimore in the first half of the 20th century.

Joyce White, a food historian living in Annapolis, Maryland, shared: “Old Bay was created in the 1930s by a German Jewish immigrant to Baltimore. The spice blend was based on hundreds of Years of tradition of mixing sweet and sweet. Delicious ground spice.”

That immigrant was Gustave Bren, who happened to be a spice expert. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Bren ended up in Baltimore’s vibrant German community at the time. His recipe, known as “Kitchen Chili,” stems from a tradition of creating spice blends. Seasoning recipes for kitchen peppers date back to the 19th century and include ingredients such as cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and pepper.

“This flavor combination was and is very popular in Asia, but it didn’t develop in medieval Europe until Asian spices started to be imported more regularly,” White told Yahoo Life. “Because sweet spices from the Spice Islands and other parts of Asia are traded on land from one buyer to another on the westbound journey, they are incredibly expensive once they reach Western Europe. So they were a status symbol at the time.”

Baltimore is a hub for such imported spices, and once-exotic ingredients like cinnamon and black pepper are now readily available in the region.

“Once spices became cheaper, sweet spices were often (but not always) eliminated from savory recipes by the mid-to-late 18th century,” explains White. “However, this medieval combination still has a place in Western cuisine, and Old Bay is a great example.”

Many crab and seafood shops in Baltimore are starting to create their own creations using secret blends of herbs and spices. At the time, the flavor profile was closest to that of pickling seasonings.

So, what’s in the mix? We don’t know for sure, but we do have some ideas.

“Old Bay is presumed to contain sweet spices such as ginger, nutmeg, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and cardamom,” says White. “Tasty spices are mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaves, black pepper and red pepper flakes.”

Old Bay is known for its unique taste, with a hint of salt and pepper that complements a hint of smoke. While nothing beats this seasoning, its distant relatives and alternatives include Cajun Seasoning, Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and Chinese Five Spice.

The McCormick Company acquired the now-iconic spice blend when it entered the spice business in 1896, bringing store-bought Old Bay to home cooks around the world. It’s now most commonly found in McCormick’s proprietary blend of paprika, cayenne, and celery salt — along with a number of other ingredients that have long been kept secret. Today, hungry hopefuls will put it on everything from crab cakes and shrimp poached to chips and chips.

“I grew up putting Old Bay on everything from french fries to chicken wings and even my popcorn,” Luis Silvio told Yahoo Life. The 34-year-old proudly showcases Baltimore’s thriving food scene on his Instagram page @bmorefood, which he started in 2015.

“It tastes like home,” the native continues. “There’s nothing quite like a crab feast with Old Bay seasoning — from corn to steamed shrimp to deviled eggs. It’s summer in a can.”

Aside from personal relationships, why does he love seasoning so much? “It’s the perfect combination of salt and spice that makes everything you sprinkle on top taste delicious,” he said.

While Silverio loves Old Bay for its traditional use, his favorite dish in Baltimore using Old Bay is the famous crab pie at local institution Matthew’s Pizza since 1943. This dish combines 100% dorsal fin crab meat, hand-grated mozzarella, imported Reggiano cheese and caramelized onions, and of course Old Bay seasoning.

Thanks in part to deep marketing dollars from major company McCormick, the spice has gained momentum around the world. In addition to its creative uses for Old Bay, this hyper-regional treat has gone mainstream in recent years, partnering with a number of domestically and globally produced brands, including Lay’s Fries, Hull’s Old Bay Cheese Burritos and their latest bake mashup Cheese cracker goldfish. The limited-edition Goldfish seasoned with Old Bay received overwhelming rave reviews, praising the balance of flavours. “I absolutely love it,” Silverio added. “It’s not overly seasoned and goes really well with the original goldfish flavor.”

One of the more interesting collaborations can be attributed to Flying Dog Brewery, a craft brewery founded in Frederick, Maryland. Dead Rise Summer Ale is an Old Bay flavored beer that pays homage to the state’s summer crab culture and the near-maniacal obsession of its inhabitants. It is also the only beer company to have an official partnership with McCormick & Company.

“A team member with a strong interest in their favorite states, seafood and condiments came up with the idea to make Old Bay beer, and we were crazy about it,” shared Ben Savage, Chief Marketing Officer of Flying Dog Brewery. “We love a challenge. Our brewers, who make delicious beers with unconventional ingredients and flavors. After bringing this idea to McCormick, we were able to co-create a special edition beer that was originally released in honor of their 75th anniversary of.”

The thirst-quenching release is not only delicious, but good for supporting the crabbing industry: A portion of the proceeds go to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ True Blue program, an annual event designed to raise awareness for the struggling industry.

The love for all things condiments led to a petition naming the beer as Maryland’s first official state beer.


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