The Spice of Death: Gene Gets Crabby About Old Bay

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- Not long ago, I casually used the word hate to describe how I felt about a certain minor annoyance. A friend chastised me, and she was right. Its an angry word, devoid of charity, dismissive of debate; in these days of destructively acrid public discourse, it should be used measuredly. So I sat down and tried to write a list only of the things I truly do hate. Generous with benefit of the doubt -- cancer is not sentient, ergo is not willfully evil -- I kept winnowing. The final list was short, but intense:

(1) Fanatics who use religion to justify the social enslavement of women.

(2) When you know you have a rat in your house but don't know where it is, and its time for bed.

(3) Old Bay Seasoning.

It was then that I suspected that my distaste for a kitchen spice had gotten out of hand.

My hatred of Old Bay began about 30 years ago when I realized that I could no longer order crabs in restaurants. That was because all restaurants -- as though by secret prearranged signal -- had started steaming their crustaceans with the mist from an orangy powder that tasted as if it had been scraped from the rust around bathroom pipes, then mixed with dandruff harvested from corpses.


Other people seemed to like Old Bay just fine, happily chomping down, oblivious to the scabby, fetid stench.

So, it was just me, somehow. Either I have some hiccup in my chemistry that makes a good thing taste bad, or -- far more likely -- I have the only palate on the planet sophisticated enough to suss out the ghastly truth about this paprika-and-celery-salt abomination.

Old Bay became my stalker, its pungent old-man breath dogging me wherever I went. It started turning up in everything: In chicken, on shrimp, in soups, on ears of corn at county fairs, even in the finest restaurants, sprinkled on pats of butter. (Here's a nice baguette, monsieur. Feel free to slather it with rubbings from the soles of our chefs shoes.) I went to a ballgame and could not find a concession stand with fries undusted by my bete noire. Finally -- this is true -- one concessionaire told me to try Section 301 B and ask for Manny, and maybe something could be arranged.

In restaurants, I compulsively check with the kitchen to make sure there's no Old Bay in what I order. I am more vigilant about this than my wife is about sunflower oil, to which she is allergic and which can actually kill her.


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