Sometimes the best souvenirs of a great vacation are memories of outstanding meals. A recent trip to the Eastern Shore region of Maryland and Virginia began with a seafood feast of local shrimp and crabs. The bright pink crustaceans were piled in a mound that stretched the length of the table, still freshly cooked and steaming.
It would have looked like a scene from the Gulf Coast except for one detail: dotting the table were blue and yellow cans of Maryland’s favorite condiment, Old Bay Seasoning. A liberal sprinkle of seasoning made its way not only to the seafood but to the accompanying corn and potatoes from the bottom of the steamer pot.
In fact, Old Bay Seasoning was an ingredient at almost every meal eaten that week, from dockside crab shacks to sophisticated restaurants. In more casual establishments, the blue and yellow cans sat proudly on the table, while more upscale places tended to lace their offerings with the spice blend, with menus touting “Old Bay aioli,” Old Bay-blackened seafood, and Old Bay-enhanced salad dressings.
Old Bay is to Maryland what picante sauce has long been to Texas: a go-to ingredient for any dish that just needs “a little something,” and the object of regional pride. Eventually, picante sauce went from being a Texas-only staple that homesick Texans up north couldn’t find to being the best-selling condiment in the U.S., dethroning ketchup a decade ago. Similarly, Old Bay has expanded its range nationally, and is found in grocery stores and fish markets throughout the country. There’s even a store-brand knockoff at one grocery chain, called “Chesapeake Bay seasoning.”
Whether it’s a knockoff version or the real thing, the seasoning mix contains mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, mace, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger. With just a hint of heat, it’s an all-purpose blend that aficionados add to everything from their eggs at breakfast to their peanuts and Bloody Marys at happy hour. In Maryland, movie theaters offer it at the concession stand as an alternative to the orange cheesy salt for popcorn.
Surprisingly, Old Bay isn’t all that old. It was first marketed in the 1940s, the invention of a refugee from Nazi Germany with a background in the spice business. Crabs were so plentiful in Baltimore and elsewhere along the shores of Chesapeake Bay that bars routinely provided them to their customers free. By adding salty seasonings, the bars recouped their investment by selling more drinks to thirsty patrons, and Old Bay’s blend of spices soon became popular far beyond the waterfront bars.
While Old Bay still pairs well with beer and bar food, it also is a good partner for summer staples such as coleslaw and fresh corn. That may be because the flavor is associated for so many with outdoor seafood boils, making it a flavor of the summer, and a flavor that calls up the warmth of the summer sun sparkling on salt water.