Summer is crab eating time in the Chesapeake region, and nowhere is this more celebrated than in Maryland. I hang out with several friends from Baltimore, so trust me when I tell you that few things excite a Marylander more than tearing into a bushel of steamed, red-shelled beauties encrusted with an aromatic seasoning — especially when accompanied by cold beer and an Orioles baseball game.
A distinct and unique mouthfeel occurs when sweet crab meat collides with the zesty burnt orange coating of spice that gets all over your fingers, clothing, ears of corn, beer bottles and just about anything else in the vicinity. Yes, it’s messy, but oh so tasty. And that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.
Except it wasn’t always that way. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the oyster was king of the Chesapeake. Crabs were abundant and cheap. Cooks used the meat for crab cakes or in creamy dishes such as crab bisque, deviled crab and crab imperial. Eating a steamed hard crab was considered a bit common, something that was fine over on the Eastern Shore but not in the big city. This all started to change around 1915 when refrigeration and transportation improved, and seafood purveyors began shipping hard crabs to city retail markets.
Fast forward to World War II. As fate would have it, two entrepreneurs – a German refugee and a Chesapeake waterman – left their homes and came to Baltimore looking for a new start. Through hard work and perseverance, the products they created helped elevate the reputation and demand for what we know today as Maryland-style steamed crabs. Although their names might not be familiar to most people today, their crab seasonings certainly are.
Gustav Brunn was a successful Jewish German sausage spice maker by trade. In 1938, the Nazis destroyed his business, arrested him and sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. After his lawyer bribed the Gestapo to free him, the Brunn family escaped Germany and sailed for Baltimore where they had relatives among the city’s large German population. They arrived with little, but Gustav did bring along his hand-crank spice grinder.
He initially found work with McCormick & Company, then the world’s largest spice company. The job didn’t last long, so with help from Baltimore’s Jewish community and a contact in New York, Brunn opened his own business, The Baltimore Spice Co., across from the city’s busy fish market.
He soon noticed what spices the fishmongers ordered and decided to create his own blend for seafood. After much experimentation, Brunn landed on an unusual mixture, a blend of popular spices of the day – pepper, salt, celery seed and mustard – to which he added more exotic flavors like paprika, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and others he declined to identify. After a couple of false starts, he named his seasoning “Old Bay,” taking inspiration from the Old Bay Steam Liner, which sailed the Chesapeake between Baltimore and Norfolk.
The spice was a hit, and Old Bay thrived as a regional family company, often employing refugees. The McCormick Company purchased it in 1990, five years after Gustav Brunn died at the age of 92.
Today under McCormick’s brand management, the seasoning has never been more popular. You can find it on potato chips and peanuts, as well as in vodka and hot sauce. At Camden Yards, home of the Orioles baseball team, a fan favorite is a soft baked pretzel with crab dip, Monterey Jack cheese and Old Bay seasoning. Folks in Baltimore sprinkle Old Bay on fried chicken, shrimp, French fries, deviled eggs, chicken wings and even on caramel ice cream. In some bars, they’ll serve you a beer or a Bloody Mary in a glass rimmed with the seasoning. I’ve even seen a t-shirt proclaiming, “I put Old Bay on my Old Bay.”
Old Bay’s popularity, however, extends well beyond Maryland and can be found in just about every grocery store in the country. In fact, one might say Old Bay is America’s favorite spice mix – unless you work for the competition.
James Ozzle Strigle was born and raised on the slowly sinking and constantly eroding Tangier Island on Virginia’s side of the Chesapeake Bay. The island was settled first by Native Americans and then by Cornish fishermen and farmers in the late 17th century. The Strigle family worked the water for a living, as most of the island’s residents did and still do today. Over the years, each island family developed its own blend of spices for cooking the crabs, fish and oysters they caught.
In 1945, James (known as J.O.) and his wife Dorothy (aka Dot) moved to Baltimore to try their hand in the spice business. As a waterman, J.O. had created a special seafood spice mix he was convinced could be profitable. They opened a store on Pratt Street where J.O. and Dot mixed their seasoning by hand in porcelain basins and sold it at the nearby wholesale fish and seafood market. J.O.’s hunch was right, and the J.O. Spice Company grew as the steamed crab industry grew. His seasoning blend was especially sought out by crab houses and restaurants.
The company eventually outgrew its Baltimore venue, so the Strigles moved it south into Baltimore County where it remains today, a business run by third and fourth generation family members Don and Ginger Ports and their three children Bethany, Tyler and Brittany. In addition to its signature crab spice, J.O. today produces several alternative crab seasonings, a steak rub, shrimp batter, crab mallets and stainless-steel steamer pots.
Unlike Old Bay, you won’t find J.O. in grocery stores. Staying true to its roots, J.O. sells directly to crab houses and restaurants. In fact, J.O. customizes special blends for small independent crab houses up and down the East Coast. Consumers can buy it at the company outlet and in select Maryland tourist shops and hardware stores.
Like Old Bay, J.O. seasoning includes salt, black pepper, red pepper, mustard and celery seed. The rest of the ingredients are kept secret. But here’s the big secret: Most Maryland crab houses use J.O. seasoning and not Old Bay. It’s primarily because J.O.’s salt flakes and spices are a tad larger and adhere better to the crabs during the cooking process, thereby providing more of the intense briny flavor that crab consumers crave.
So, if you happen to find yourself behind a big messy pile of steamed crabs this summer, feel free to lick your fingers and raise a beer — or whatever libation you prefer — in honor of Brunn and Strigle. Their unique origin stories and the iconic seasonings are as American as apple pie and certainly worth our recognition. And if you’re feeling adventuresome, go ahead and sprinkle a little bit on your apple pie. It's kind of tasty.