When I started my freshman year at Hopkins, my upperclassmen friends urged me to do one thing in Baltimore – try the crabs. So, I visited the now-closed Obrycki’s in Fells and naively ordered a crab cake. It was good, but nothing special (this was obviously before I knew about Faidley’s). When I told my friends that I’d finally tried crabs, they shook their heads. No, not crab cakes.
Oh. I felt a little silly. They meant whole crabs: shell, claws, legs, everything. The kind that required a tiny wooden mallet, a picnic table covered with a large sheet of brown paper and a roll of paper towels.
The next time, I did it right: I ventured to L.P. Steamers, a crab house in Locust Point. My dining companion and I ordered a dozen large crabs steamed and seasoned with Old Bay.
Being from the South, I knew this popular seafood seasoning quite well. My mom always kept a container of Old Bay in her kitchen cabinet, and we’d use it mostly for shrimp boils.
Back at L.P. Steamers, our crabs arrived with their shells coated in that familiar dark red seasoning. I broke apart one of the claws and had my first taste of real Baltimore crab meat: mildly sweet, complemented by the addictively salty, spicy flavor of Old Bay. I found myself creating mounds of Old Bay on the table, and then rolling the crab meat in it. Yes, it was just that good.
I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner, but I recently bought a container of Old Bay, planning to sprinkle it over fried potatoes. Since culinary school, I always like to know the ingredients I’m using, so I did a little research. Interestingly, Old Bay is the result of an unlikely smorgasbord of spices: black pepper, celery seed, mustard seed, paprika, bay leaf, red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and ginger.
I took a whiff and immediately picked up on paprika, cloves and cinnamon. Actually, it took several “whiffs” to come to this conclusion, after which I began to feel a bit lightheaded. I remembered my mom’s shrimp boil and L.P. Steamer’s crabs and smiled.
Here’s a little history: German immigrant Gustav Brunn first developed Old Bay in Baltimore in the late 1930s. Originally, the seasoning mix was named “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning.” As you might guess, the name did not fare so well with the public.
In a wise marketing move, the seasoning was renamed “Old Bay” after a steamship that frequented the Chesapeake between Maryland and Virginia. Today, the signature yellow, red and blue Old Bay container has an almost iconic presence on the shelves of many Americans. According to Old Bay’s website, nearly 50 million ounces were sold last year.
Although it is mainly advertised as a seasoning for crab, shrimp and chicken, Old Bay’s possibilities are endless. After living in Old Bay “Mecca,” I’ve seen it in just about every application. I’ve sprinkled Old Bay on potatoes, eggs and popcorn. I’ve even used it as a spice rub for steak. Last week, I seasoned mayo with Old Bay and mixed it with canned tuna for lunch. If I’d had the time, I would have made Old Bay Mayo from scratch.
Old Bay’s versatility makes it a great go-to seasoning. I’ve included two recipes below, but don’t be afraid to use your imagination and experiment. This post from The Washington Post’s former food blog might be a good starting point. Or, if you’re really feeling ambitious, you can be Bobby Flay and make your Old Bay from scratch: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/old-bay-grilled-steak-fries-recipe/index.html.
The Original Old Bay Shrimp Boil
Adapted from the back of the Old Bay container – the one my mom used to make!
- 2 tablespoon Old Bay
- 1/2 cup vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 lb. shrimp, in shells
- In saucepan, combine Old Bay, vinegar and water and bring to a boil.
- Add shrimp, stir gently.
- Cover and steam until shrimp are tender, about 3-5 minutes.
- Drain liquid and enjoy.
Old Bay Mayo (Yield = 1 cup)
My own, adapted from Mark Bittman’s Homemade Mayonnaise
- 1 yolk
- 2 teaspoons Dijon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons Old Bay (You might need more)
- 1 cup neutral oil, such as canola
- Combine the yolk, Dijon, salt, pepper, Old Bay and lemon juice in a food processor.
- Turn on the machine and while it is running, add the oil very slowly in a steady stream (adding it too fast will cause the mayo to break).
- Watch for the mayo to thicken. If you like thicker mayo, add more oil, but 1 cup should do it.
- Taste your mayo, checking for seasoning. If the Old Bay flavor isn’t strong enough, add another teaspoon and pulse to combine. Keep adding Old Bay in teaspoon increments until desired flavor is reached.
- Enjoy as a dipping sauce, spread on sandwiches, in a salad or however you prefer.