Old Bay Makes a Bid to Go Global

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Melissa Cannarozzi / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Last week, McDonald’s unveiled its latest canny regional stunt, an Old Bay-flavored Filet-o-Fish available at 700 stores in the Maryland/D.C. area. And since I’m a sentimental Baltimore-area native, one who grew up watching my dad shake heaps of Old Bay on to his Italian-dressed salads every night for years, I had no choice. On Friday I walked into a McDonald’s for the first time in ages with the sole purpose of ordering the deep fried fish sandwich. 

It was an uncharacteristically emotional trip to the Golden Arches. On the one hand, there was the ridiculous idea that Old Bay was now somehow poised for mainstream popularity beyond the region, that this sandwich represented some victory for our hometown taste. But I was also nervous, since this was the second high-visibility Old Bay-infused product to appear in as many years, following 2014’s Dead Rise Summer Ale from Frederick, MD-based brewery Flying Dog. While adding Old Bay to everything is as natural to mid-Atlantic residents as complaining about D.C. traffic, the beer was a step too far; it came on like a decent hot-weather ale and then left a salty, briny aftertaste. And if Flying Dog couldn’t do it, I had little hope that McDonald’s could successfully integrate Old Bay’s indelible flavor into its otherwise unsubtle menu.

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Indeed, a partnership with the most widespread restaurant chain on earth is an unlikely vindication for Old Bay, which, despite celebrating its 75th anniversary last year, has never quite transcended its regional identity. It’s as common as salt and pepper to most Marylanders, yet its charms have eluded many eaters outside its Chesapeake namesake; Gene Weingarten, the Bronx-raised Washington Post columnist, for example, once claimed that the “orangy powder…tasted as if it had been scraped from the rust around bathroom pipes, then mixed with dandruff harvested from corpses.”

That’s likely untrue, though hard to say given the Old Bay company’s strict guarding of the exact spice mixture. They boast that the seasoning is a mix of 18 spices, but list only celery salt, red and black pepper, and paprika on the iconic gold and blue can. Historians and connoisseurs have identified mustard powder, bay leaf, laurel, and ginger beyond that, but the exact mixture remains a closely held secret.

Smith Island on the eastern shore of Maryland.

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Whatever its makeup, Old Bay is synonymous with shellfish in Baltimore and the surrounding area—ironic, considering its inventor, Gustav Brunn, was Jewish. A German spice merchant who fled to America after Kristallnacht, Brunn eventually found work with the legendary McCormick spice company in 1938, though he was fired after two days, purportedly for his faith. He opened the Baltimore Spice Co. in September 1939, selling pepper blends to fishmongers, and soon grew ambitious, flavor-wise. His signature product, initially called Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning, was renamed Old Bay after World War II, though it remained a niche product, even locally, for decades beyond that. By the mid-1980s, right before the company was ironically bought out by McCormick, Old Bay constituted only 2 or 3 percent of sales.

Then came the marketers, who gamely set out to make Old Bay the taste of Baltimore. They had their work cut out for them; other than greater New Orleans, whose Cajun seasoning Old Bay most closely resembles, it’s hard to think of many American cities that are closely associated with a complex spice blend. And that very complexity sets Old Bay apart from Baltimore’s other gastronomic mainstays, which can be charitably described as one-dimensionally flavorful. There’s our beloved Berger cookie—a misshapen lump of coal-hued chocolate icing atop a perfunctory shortbread base—and our (once-) local beer, National Bohemian, better known as Natty Boh, which is the exact same watery lager that every American city used to produce for its poorer or less discerning residents, and to which every one of my friends remains stubbornly loyal purely because it was cheap and widely available during the time when our lack of money was equal only to our yen for constant drunkenness.

By comparison, Old Bay might as well be from Punjab or Marrakesh. It smells like coastal summer and tastes as deeply rich as good gumbo. Even its color, that burnt-sienna-left-out-to-rust hue, is an aesthetic triumph. It may be best known as a crab seasoning, but especially since a bushel will run you well over $100 these days (and will, more likely than not, come from the Gulf Coast), Marylanders have found a seemingly infinite number of more affordable uses for it: on chips, in ice cream, in peanut brittle, popcorn, and caramel. Gift shops and local businesses abound with this stuff, and with memorabilia featuring the now-iconic tin that McCormick even mounted on a prominent downtown parking garage in 2012.

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The Filet-o-Fish, therefore, is almost a natural step in Old Bay’s growing ubiquity. And I have to say, it tastes just fine—this is a brinier, more convincingly saltwater-indebted sandwich than I ever expected to order alongside a Happy Meal. However, the Old Bay is only present in the tartar sauce, so it’s buried inside that fascinatingly unbreadlike McDonald’s roll. By the time your tongue melts through that lab-borne outer layer and hits the crispy cod within, the seasoning is just one more layer of sodium in each unsurprisingly salty bite. But I admit, even that small nod to regionalism satisfied. It was enough that the woman who took my order laughed when I asked for the Old Bay sandwich like she’d already heard untold other mid-Atlantic lifers come in just for the chance to taste this defiantly hometown flavor amid the most scientifically controlled flavor palette in existence.  It's because Old Bay has been our thing for so long that we will support it whenever its next attempt at market expansion inevitably comes.

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