In Baltimore, it’s as ubiquitous as salt. Call it Old Bay Seasoning, J.O., or Phillips (just three of its incarnations), but in the kitchens of Charm City, the pleasing configuration of spices known generically as Maryland seafood seasoning is utterly indispensable. Why? Take a long, deep whiff. You’ll smell New Orleans, a Chinese apothecary, and a Middle Eastern spice shop: round, sultry, exotic notes that reveal a complexity—and piquancy—not often found in a part of the country where seasoning is usually mild-mannered. Old Bay is, to our taste buds, the most complex and well-balanced; J.O. is saltier and more peppery; and Phillips tastes a bit like cayenne-zapped vegetable stock. (All three have a base of celery salt, dry mustard, red pepper, and bay leaves.)
What are the origins of this addictive mix? Old Bay’s founder, Gustav Brunn, a German-born sausagemaker, created his famous recipe in 1939 (he started the company, then called Baltimore Spice, a year later). But similar blends had been around before Brunn. Did spice-obsessed Acadians once set up shop in Baltimore? Did spice secrets somehow trickle this way from Marrakech? Nobody really seems to know, but everybody loves the stuff.