HALETHORPE, MD — Article Credit: Megan VerHelst
A small spice company in Baltimore County wants Maryland restaurant-goers to know — that’s probably not Old Bay you taste on those blue crabs.
During a recent appearance on the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs,” hosted by Ellicott City-born Mike Rowe, the owners of J.O. Spice Company in Halethorpe dropped a tasty reminder on lovers of Maryland’s iconic Old Bay seasoning.
Many crab houses across the state aren’t using Old Bay. They’re actually using J.O.’s No. 2 Crab House Spice, WTOP reported.
“You think that when you sit down, it’s Old Bay on the crab, but it’s really J.O. Spice,” Ginger Ports, the company’s marketing and sales manager, told WTOP. “That’s not discounting Old Bay at all. It’s an iconic Maryland product.”
Ports isn’t wrong about the “iconic” part. Old Bay was created in Baltimore by a German-Jewish immigrant named Gustav Brunn, who came to the city with his wife in 1938, according to Preservation Maryland. Brunn started a spice business across from the Baltimore Wholesale Fish Market.
Originally called “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,” Old Bay was born during World War II. It was produced and sold by the Baltimore Spice Company until Brunn’s son, Ralph, retired in 1985. McCormick bought the Old Bay recipe in 1990 and now sells it worldwide.
Today, Old Bay is used on nearly everything, including french fries, popcorn, clam chowder and even in vodka. Still, Old Bay is probably not on that plate of steamed crabs.
“I would use it as a finishing sauce, like a ketchup,” Tim Ebner, food writer and Maryland native, told WAMU. “It’s not something that I’m going to cover my steamed crabs in as they cook.”
Ebner isn’t alone. That’s because Old Bay is a refined powder that melts off crabs while steaming. That’s why crab houses are turning to J.O. Spice.
“The most common misconception in Maryland is that all crabs are covered in Old Bay,” Ports told WAMU in May.
It happens to the best of us. Even celebrity chef Rachael Ray confused J.O. Spice with Old Bay when interviewing Rowe about the company during a segment of her talk/cooking show.
Still, it turns out J.O. Spice Company has been around almost as long as Old Bay.
J.O. Spice Company was established in 1945 by James Ozzle Strigle and his wife, Dot, according to the company’s website. Strigle was born and raised on Tangier Island, Virginia, where everyone’s livelihood depended on seafood. The island’s shoremen would often take spices from the pantry and blend them based on centuries-old recipes consisting of steamed crabs, fish, oysters, and clams, the website reads.
Strigle eventually opened a small store in Baltimore. Strigle died in 1974 and Dot ran the business until her retirement. The company has remained a family operation run by the Strigles’ daughter, Jane, and their grandson, Donald.
Since the episode of “Dirty Jobs” aired, the company went from shipping about 50 packages per week to 900, Ports told WTOP.
“We are busy,” she added. “It’s very exciting.”