Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020

Old Bay seasoning bears its Jewish roots

By RACHEL BECKER | November 14, 2013

Last Friday, students gathered at Hopkins Hillel to hear alumnus Ralph Brunn speak about his father and the invention of Old Bay Spice. The event was co-sponsored by Hillel and the Jewish Students Association.

“JSA works throughout the year to host and organize events catered towards the Hopkins Jewish Community,” Ari Weiss, president of JSA, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

The Assistant Director of Hillel, Jonathan Falk, also helped to organize the event.

“One of the goals of Hillel is to learn, share and grow the Jewish stories of our students,” Falk wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Brunn’s father, Gustav, who sold spices to sausage makers in his native Germany, landed in Baltimore in 1938. Yet spices had not always been his trade.

Gustav had a disability that prevented him from service in the army. After dropping out of school at 13, he took up an apprenticeship at a tannery where he collected hides and skins from farmers who slaughtered their animals. When the owner of the tannery chose to retire, he bought the company.

World War I made supplies scarce, so Gustav began supplying casings and spices to sausage makers. He eventually began making unique spice combinations for different types of sausages. Eventually, the tannery side of his business fell to the wayside and only the spice trade remained. Upon arriving in Baltimore, Gustav applied to work at McCormick & Company.

“It was a totally different company from what it is today,” Brunn said.

The company was very anti-Semitic at the time. Gustav was fired two days after being hired because his employers found out he was Jewish.

Gustav had brought some machines with him from Germany and opened a small business across from the wholesale fish market. From then on, McCormick was an arch-nemesis.

McCormick was determined to copy his successful recipe. Under the law, companies were required to declare the ingredients on the back of packages. In order to throw McCormick off track, he included 13 ingredients instead of his four main ingredients. The additional trace elements ended up enhancing the flavor of the seasoning.

The secret to the recipe was “ground spices,” the extras from large orders added to the blend.

“No wonder McCormick couldn’t duplicate that. We ourselves couldn’t have duplicated that either. It was a mix of everything under the sun,” Brunn said.

Gustav gave samples to crab sellers in an effort to make them use his product. It caught on slowly, but after it caught on, it quickly became popular.

At that point, Old Bay was not yet a brand; it was just crab seasoning. Gustav was approached about selling it for retail, so they began packing the seasoning in cans.

The cans were branded with the name “Delicious,” but Brunn said it was more of a name than a brand. McCormick also began packing their crab seasonings in cans in an effort to copy Gustav.

The name Old Bay did not come along until later. There were two steam ship companies that ran from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., one of which was known as Old Bay. A friend of Gustav’s in advertising suggested adopting the name and calling it Old Bay Seafood Seasoning. The name was eventually changed to the Old Bay Seasoning recognizable today.

At this point, Brunn had returned from World War II and became involved in the company. Retail only accounted for two or three percent of the company’s profit. The rest came from selling in bulk to food manufacturers.

The company attempted to join the American Spice Trade Association, but McCormick threatened to leave if they did.

“If those god damn refugees are allowed in this association, then we will get out,” Brunn quoted McCormick as saying.

The seasoning is used for seafood and almost any other type of food. Those in attendance at the event liberally sprinkled the seasoning on the meal of chicken tenders and french fries provided.

The Brunn family sold the company in 1985, and the company was then sold again in 1990. In a twist of fate, Old Bay ended up in the hands of McCormick & Company. According to Brunn, they claim to have not altered the recipe and the can remains almost identical to this day.

The one noticeable difference is that the modern cans bear a kosher symbol, while seafood, like the crab on the front, are not themselves kosher. Brunn explained that the recipe has always been verified as kosher without being labeled as such.

“It was truly fascinating to hear and learn more about the impact of a Jewish family in establishing a Baltimore, iconic item. . .Having an event that taught us more about our local Jewish community and history was all the more meaningful,” Weiss wrote.

“This event told an important narrative of Jewish Baltimore from the perspective of a Hopkins alum and a businessman. Ralph touched on anti-semitism in the 1930s and ‘40s and the perseverance of the Jewish spirit. We, as Jews, love stories and cherish them, and Ralph’s story adds another chapter to the many chapters of our Jewish stakeholders at Hopkins Hillel,” Falk wrote.

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