In almost every kitchen in Baltimore, and maybe Maryland, there is a tiny yellow, blue, and red tin of Old Bay seasoning. It is an essential part of local cuisine. Yet, most people are unaware of the spice’s dramatic Jewish history. Old Bay was created by Gustav Brunn, a Jewish immigrant who came to the United States after escaping from Nazi Germany.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, violent mobs across Nazi Germany and Austria burned and looted Jewish homes, businesses, hospitals, and synagogues in what would be known as Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass." The Nazis also rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps. Brunn was among those captured and sent to Camp Buchenwald.
His family helped secure Brunn’s release by paying 10,000 marks to a lawyer who bailed him out. As soon as he was released, Brunn and his children left for the United States. A spice merchant, Brunn left with very little, but he insisted on taking his hand-crank spice grinder.
In 1939, the Brunn family arrived in Baltimore and settled into an apartment at 2317 Eutaw Place. After arriving in America, Brunn wanted to re-enter the spice trade, but he had no capital. Brunn had to secure a loan from Katz American to open his spice business. Katz American was not a bank, it was another spice company. As a fellow Jewish spice merchant, Katz put profit aside to help Brunn start his business. After securing a loan from Katz American, Brunn created the Baltimore Spice Company. The company took up residence on the second floor of 26 Market Place; and, the hand-crank spice grinder began to turn once again.
Before Brunn created the Baltimore Spice Company, he had worked at McCormick until he was fired for being Jewish. Brunn’s son said that after McCormick learned Brunn was Jewish, he was promptly fired, and told to “go and see the Jewish charities.” Although Brunn experienced rampant anti-semitism in his lifetime, he continued to persevere.
The Baltimore Spice Company began developing a crab seasoning around 1940. Brunn created the famous spice after noticing local crab steamers come to his shop to buy various spices. His shop at 26 Market Place was directly across from the Wholesale Fish Market. The crab steamers would then blend the spices together to season their crabs. Brunn was inspired by the crab steamers to create his own crab seasoning--Old Bay. Brunn added tiny amounts of various spices to his crab seasoning in order to be unique in an overly saturated crab spice market. According to Brunn’s son,
“Those minor things he put in there — the most unlikely things, including cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with crabs at all — gave a background bouquet that he couldn’t have anticipated. Old Bay, per se, was almost an accident.”
In the very beginning, Brunn had trouble selling the spice mixture that would one day become synonymous with Baltimore. However, after giving samples to the local crab steamers, business began to pick up. By this time, the spice still had no name. Brunn named the spice after the Old Bay steamship line, which used to run out of Baltimore. After getting its name, the spice mix’s popularity continued to grow. Major companies, including McCormick, began to sell a similar product in a similar can.
The rivalry between the Baltimore Spice Company and McCormick over the rights to Old Bay did not end until five years after the death of Gustav Brunn. In 1990, the company sold the rights to the original Old Bay recipe to McCormick. The spice has continued to be a mainstay in grocery stores in Baltimore and across the entire Mid-Atlantic. In recent years, the spice mix has gained an almost cult-like popularity and has helped spawn the development of things such as: Old Bay apparel, vodka, and beer.
The spice is so quintessentially Maryland that a poll by Goucher College found that “opinions toward Old Bay transcend party, age, race, gender, and ideological lines,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sara T. Hughes Politics Center at Goucher. “An overwhelming majority of Marylanders view it favorably.”
When Gustav Brunn created Old Bay in 1939, he thought he just created a great spice mixture. He did not know he would create a product that would become integral to the cultural fabric of Maryland.The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.