Obsession with a yellow tin can: Spicy, zesty, sassy – our beloved Old Bay®
Suzanne Molino Singleton
(lifelong Baltimorean and Old Bay aficionada)
Uncle Louie of Perry Hall, Maryland shared his Natty Boh and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with a bushel of live Maryland blue crabs – a yellow tin can of unmistakably recognizable Old Bay close by. He’d sip from his bottle, pour some beer on the active crabs, and swallow some more as he flung the lively, claw-clicking crustaceans into a tall crab pot to meet their mortality coated in the seasoning that helped “steam ‘em ‘til they’re red.”
A few crabs would kerplunk on the basement floor and instantly scuttle away, frantic to find a safer situation than being dangled over a boiling steamer of beer, white vinegar and Old Bay seasoning.
Back in the days when Marylanders always steamed their own crabs (versus today ordering them steamed from a seafood carryout), Old Bay was the go-to seasoning used exclusively for steaming crabs. Now, it’s a standard kitchen fixture perched alongside the salt & pepper shakers.
When Mary N. Smith moved to California from Baltimore 30 years ago, Old Bay was not available on the west coast, so her parents mailed it to her. Pat Wagner didn’t discover Old Bay until she moved to Baltimore in the 1970s. “I always have Old Bay in my kitchen,” she said, “and a spare in the pantry to make sure we don't run out.”
Now Old Bay is sold nationwide – an approximate 77 million ounces a year! (Holy Old Bay, that’s an enormous herd of yellow tin cans.)
Baltimorean Shannon Prisco Welch lives in Verona, Italy, with her military hubby. “Old Bay is sold here in Italy at the commissary!” she says. “I would put it on crabs and corn if they had them here, but they don’t. Mamma mia!”
Its iconic yellow can sports a bright red lid – a design that hasn’t altered since its 1939 creation. Marylanders persist in their obsession and loyalty to the spice, both for its zesty taste making everything zestier and for its significance to their childhoods.
Besides sprinkling Old Bay on crabs, shrimp and fish – those are a given – Old Bay lovers reportedly shake the can atop or in these foods:
- corn on the cob
- tomato wedges
- chicken salad
- chicken wings
- French fries
- BBQ sauce
- macaroni salad
- potato salad
- potato chips
- spaghetti sauce
- party dip
- pancakes (that’s a new one!)
- and … name your favorite
Extending beyond the kitchen and trending currently at Route One Apparel is an array of Old Bay fresh-as-live-crabs garments and accessories … from light switch plates to luggage tags to yoga leggings and another few dozen (like how crabs are sold!) entertaining pieces in between.
So as you’re reminiscing about why YOU love the ritual of Old Bay, don’t just eat the icon – honor it! Wear it, carry it, and decorate with it, too. Old Bay – our spicy, zesty and sassy obsession.
Native Marylanders talk Old Bay …
Emma B in Sparks: “My college roommate was obsessed with Old Bay. We had a can in the kitchen, one on the dining table, another in the family room, one in her bedroom, and one in her car … everywhere! We were never without it!”
Debbie S in Baltimore: “Our son and daughter live in San Diego and every Christmas the only gift they want is everything Old Bay: ties, bags, art work.”
Meg G in Baltimore: “I once mailed a big canister to Australia to a friend who’d moved there and didn’t want to be without her beloved Old Bay!”
Tiffani C in Perry Hall: “Old Bay goes on everything but my favorites are cheap frozen cheese pizza and potatoes: baked, mashed, French fried. I remember helping to season the crabs that we steamed at Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop’s!”
Cathy S in Edgemere: “When I was growing up, my dad would rent a boat and take my mom, sister and me out for a day of fishing and crabbing. After catching our bushel and a number of fish, Dad would navigate the boat to Mrs. Kardash's shorehouse somewhere near Turkey Point Road. (Mrs. Kardash had immigrated to America from Russia with my grandparents.) She would steam the crabs with lots of Old Bay and beer, and fry the fish. The smell in the house was amazing! My grandparents and other Russian friends would go to Mrs. Kardash's for the feast!”
Cindy B in Belcamp: “I love to smell it. My most vivid memory of crabs and Old Bay is seeing live crabs scurry across my grandmother's kitchen. Sadly, their run for freedom was not successful.”
Marissa S in Forest Hill: “What can’t you put Old Bay on? I’ve even had chocolate with Old Bay in it.”
Suzy R in Kansas: “Grew up in Baltimore County. Nothing is better on Maryland crabs, in Crab Imperial, on steamed shrimp and crab cakes. I used to love taking tomato wedges and scraping the Old Bay off the crab shells to eat with the crabs. Sadly, we can't get good crab out here in Kansas, but we're lucky that we can get Old Bay at the commissary on Ft. Leavenworth. We always have the largest can in our cupboard. My husband Bruce (a born and bred Baltimorean) loves Old Bay on anything. I'll make a gourmet meal and he'll ask for Old Bay at the table (now, that ticks me off).”
Brian S in Florida: “Boyhood memory: wash Old Bay off hands before using the bathroom – learned this lesson the hard way!”
Jeanie N in Baltimore: “Obviously, we Marylanders have an obsession with our Old Bay … makes ya wonder if our state has a high blood pressure rate!”
Read a brief history about Old Bay: oldbay.com/OLD-BAY-Story