The Unexpected Jewish Origins Of Maryland's Favorite Seasoning Blend

A lot of gentiles probably don't know what to think of when it comes to Jewish food other than a few examples like matzah or latkes. The thing is, non-Jews are extremely familiar with Jewish food — they just might not realize it's Jewish food. Jewish cuisine includes not only bagels and Reuben sandwiches but also fried green tomatoes and fish and chips.

There's another wildly popular culinary masterpiece that was created by a Jewish man and which has, in the 80-plus years of its existence, become something akin to a regional religion: Old Bay, that tasty seafood seasoning blend of celery salt, red pepper, black pepper, and paprika (along with minor traces of different spices that have been kept secret since its creation). Old Bay is so popular in Maryland that it's not at all hard to find things like Old Bay bagels and Old Bay ice cream — and it was all started by one German-Jewish immigrant who narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

Here's the story: In 1939, German-Jewish immigrant Gustav Brunn started the Baltimore Spice Company and made his new seasoning blend — the thing that would eventually become Old Bay — his signature product. That's the short version, but the long version is much more interesting.

Germany's loss was ultimately America's gain

Brunn wasn't a neophyte to the spice world when he started Baltimore Spice Co.; he'd had a successful spice and seasoning business in Germany in the decades after World War I. Unfortunately, he was Jewish and owned a company in Germany after the rise of the Nazi Party. Brunn himself was arrested on Kristallnacht, the largest pogrom in German history, and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Fortunately for Brunn (and the state of Maryland), his wife was able to pay enough money to get him released, as 1939 was before many concentration camps were turned into death camps. The pair fled to America with their two children and eventually settled in Baltimore — where Brunn would eventually create Old Bay.

The name we know today wasn't its original moniker, however. Old Bay seasoning was initially called "Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning." Brunn was persuaded to change it to its far catchier name by a friend, who pointed him toward the Old Bay Line, a passenger ship from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, in the early part of the 20th century. Let's all thank Brunn's friend because otherwise, we'd have to say Blue Crabs were "seasoned with Delicious," and that just doesn't sound as good.

The company that fired Brunn eventually bought Old Bay

Brunn passed away in 1985. In 1990, McCormick & Co. bought the rights to Old Bay seasoning. It hasn't changed it since — which is smart, as the state of Maryland might burn its factories down if it did.

Here's the wildest part: Brunn had briefly worked for McCormick & Co. after he'd emigrated to America. He apparently only lasted a week, and while McCormick claims it has no record of his employment, his family is adamant he was fired for being Jewish. That would've been entirely legal in 1939; it wasn't until Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that employment discrimination on the basis of religion was outlawed. Heck, it wasn't until 2018 that Jewish heritage was ruled protected under racial discrimination.

Whatever the case, it's probably good Brunn didn't stick at McCormick. Under a regime where he didn't have heavy sway, it seems unlikely they would've let him start marketing his signature new blend — meaning we wouldn't have the glory that is Old Bay.