Few spices are as locally iconic as Old Bay. You’d be hard pressed to find any Marylander who hasn’t at least tasted the saliferous seasoning, if not used it in cooking. It’s virtually unavoidable in local cuisine, from seafood to chicken, from ice cream to beer. It’s less a blend of 13 flavors than a flavor unto itself.
Yet many Marylanders are unaware of Old Bay’s dramatic Jewish history. Even that person clad in an Old Bay T-shirt surely wouldn’t guess that the spice’s creator was a Jewish immigrant who came to America after escaping from a Nazi detention camp.
Gustav Brunn was that Jewish immigrant. His story is filled with unforgettable moments, signposts of the Jewish American immigrant experience: leaving his hometown for the big city of Frankfurt. Surviving Kristallnacht. Being bailed out of Buchenwald. Coming to America.
It was during this difficult time of acclimating to life in the United States that he would launch a spice company that would become a household name.
From Bastheim to Baltimore
Gustav Brunn was born in the town of Bastheim, in southeast Germany in 1893. By the time he was 13, he had to quit school because his family could no longer afford it, and he entered into a tannery apprenticeship. When the first World War broke out, Gustav received a medical exemption and started a business purchasing skins and hides from farmers to sell to tanneries. He later took over a tannery business from one of his loyal customers.
“He was working with these small farmers and butchers, but at the end of the war, everything was short, especially spices,” said Pikesville resident Ralph Brunn, Gustav’s 93-year-old son.
Seeing an opportunity, Gustav began making connections with spice importers in Hamburg and Holland. It was the first spice business he’d operate, and it was lucrative until the Nazis came in 1933. Then, Gustav began to lose customers as anti-Semitism grew, and his bookkeeper resigned for fear that the Nazis might reprimand him for working for a Jew.
By 1935, Ralph Brunn said that he and his sister, Lore, then 9 and 13, could not escape the anti-Semitism spreading across Germany.
“Things were rough for both my sister and myself,” he said. “Some teachers were perfectly OK, but others got pretty nasty, they told the rest of the class they shouldn’t associate with me.”
Gustav Brunn decided to move the family to Frankfurt, hoping that being in a city with a larger Jewish population would provide a better business environment. It didn’t work out that way.
“His customers were all being pushed not to buy from the Jews, especially by my father’s competitors,” said Ralph. “Some customers left, but others, friends of his, instructed him to send his materials without labels.”
Gustav contacted an uncle he’d never met who had settled in Baltimore. In 1937, Gustav applied for a visa, and was due to leave for the United States by the end of 1938. On Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht brought the looting of Jewish homes, hospitals and synagogues. “Fortunately for us, they made a mistake,” said Ralph. “We were living in Frankfurt in an apartment on the second floor. They picked the wrong house — there weren’t any Jews living there.”
Radio announcements that day called for all Jews to surrender their firearms to the nearest police station. Gustav, an avid hunter with eight rifles, complied.
“We carried the guns to the police station, and he went in and told me to wait outside,” said Ralph. “When he came out, he told me, ‘I’m not allowed to leave.’”
Within a few hours, Gustav was taken to Buchenwald with a few hundred other Jews. In a 1980 interview with the Jewish Historical Society, he recalled, “There were only men, no children. … We saw Nazis with sticks and open trucks. We had to go into these cattle cars.”
At this point, according to Ralph, some Jews did have the opportunity to be bailed out of Nazi detention — at a hefty price.
“There was a lawyer in Frankfurt known to the Jewish community,” said Ralph. In order to bail out a family member, the payment was “5,000 marks at the beginning and 5,000 marks once ‘the merchandise’ was received. If the second 5,000 marks wasn’t received, ‘the merchandise’ went right back where it came from.”
Gustav was released, albeit with a shaved head and pneumonia. The Brunns were ready to leave for the United States within a week.
“At that time, [the ships] permitted — you to have a lift van, to put your furniture into. We stuffed everything in there we could,” said Ralph. Along with the furniture, Gustav packed a small mill and a small mixer for seasonings.
“He was ready for this.”
A New Start by the Old Bay
In early 1939, the Brunns settled in an apartment in the 2300 block of Eutaw Place. For three quarters of the Brunn family, things began to look up. Ralph’s sister, Lore, found a job as a masseuse. His mother, Bianca, found work cooking breakfast for an elderly woman. Even Ralph began selling magazines while he attended Baltimore Polytechnical Institute. Gustav didn’t have such luck.
“My father was desperate for work,” said Ralph. “He was very hard to live with at that time, but it was very tough for him.”
After Gustav learned some English, he made other attempts to assimilate into American culture, even changing his handwriting to make it look less European.
He did find work at Baltimore’s McCormick & Company, but was only employed there for a short time. Without another job on the horizon, Gustav went back to his entreprenurial roots, pursuing his own line of spices.
“My father went around Baltimore looking for a suitable site,” said Ralph. “He finally found a place on Market Place across the street from the Wholesale Fish Market above a place called the Southern Seafood Company.”
Gustav traveled from Baltimore to New York to see a Jewish-owned spice importer that he’d dealt with in Holland. Although Gustav made it clear he didn’t have much capital, the company, Katz American, gave him credit.
“That was absolutely unheard of during the Depression, when everyone went bankrupt,” said Ralph. “Once Katz American gave him credit, of course, everyone else did, too.”
This was the beginning of the Baltimore Spice Company. Gustav began selling spices to local businesses such as Attman’s Delicatessen and meatpackers in West Baltimore. Gustav first began making a crab seasoning around 1940, when U.S. law mandated that manufacturers declare each and every ingredient. Fearing that a competitor would copy his recipe, Gustav added miniscule amounts of certain flavors to throw off any such attempts.
“To his amazement, those minor things he put in there — the most unlikely things, including cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with crabs at all — gave a background bouquet that he couldn’t have anticipated,” said Ralph. “Old Bay, per se, was almost an accident.”
Gustav initially had trouble convincing the local seafood companies to purchase the seasoning, so he approached a small crab steamer around the corner and gave him a 5 pound box to try on the house.
“He came back and said, ‘Hey, this stuff is pretty good!’”said Ralph.
At this point, there was still no brand name, but a friend of Gustav’s in the advertising business suggested calling it Old Bay, after one of the steamship lines from Baltimore.
It’s hard to determine when Old Bay Seasoning became so intertwined with Baltimore identity. Ralph, who later became the CEO of Baltimore Spice, said Old Bay only represented 2 to 3 percent of their sales. Of course, Old Bay is best known as the seasoning of decidely non-kosher food items, crabs and shrimp, but that didn’t stop McCormick from including a local Chabad rabbi, Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County, in its 75th anniversary advertising four years ago. The spice, which is certified kosher, has gone far beyond seafood.
And these days, it’s a Baltimore essential, as you can tell when you talk to local food purveyors and residents.
Susan Seaman, along with her husband, Mark, owns the Black-Eyed Susan Gift Baskets company in Glyndon. Seaman said that Old Bay is a staple in most of the baskets they make.
“For me, it brings back memories of my childhood,” Susan said. “We owned property on Kent Island and we’d go down every weekend and we’d crab and fish. And we’d bring those blue crabs back and steam them with Old Bay.”
The spice would change hands a few times over the years. A British conglomerate called Hanson Industries purchased Baltimore Spice in 1986, and separated Old Bay into its own entity. McCormick & Company purchased Old Bay from Hanson in 1990.
Although Ralph Brunn hasn’t had anything to do with Old Bay for decades, he still finds pleasure in hearing what people do with the seasoning. “I laugh at the things they come up with. On 34th Street there’s a store that makes Old Bay ice cream. On the Eastern Shore there’s a guy that makes Old Bay beer.”
David Alima’s Charmery is that ice cream shop, which features Old Bay Caramel as one of its signature flavors.
He said that although it took him a few tries, including a standard cream and chocolate base, the Old Bay Caramel is a true staple in his store.
“We thought it’d be the most sampled flavor, and no one would buy it,” said Alima. “But it turns out there are some serious Old Bay Caramel people. That is their favorite ice cream of all time.”
“I am a full-on Baltimorean,” said Alima. “I love Old Bay.”