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. It’s 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 it’s 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 chef’s shoes.”) I went to a ballgame and could not find a concession stand with fries undusted by my bête 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.
The Old Bay website contains joyful testimonials from satisfied customers. Erin from Laguna Beach puts it on bagels. Kyle from Baltimore thinks it’s great on German chocolate cake. Gene from Washington, D.C., sent in this testimonial: “If I accidentally ate a little, I’d pump out my stomach with a toilet plunger if that’s all I could get my hands on.”
See? I have an issue with hostility. Which is why I drove 50-plus miles to try to make my peace with my prejudice. The Old Bay factory is north of Baltimore. It’s a mammoth spread of production plants. The air is sultry with Old Bay, as suffocating as an over-perfumed dowager in an elevator.
And just as I stood there, my stomach in knots, my heart kicked in.
Old Bay isn’t just a powder, I realized. It is also men and women in hairnets, with their first names stitched over the pockets of their blue shirts. They have hopes and dreams and families. There’s Robert the truck driver, who warned me that no one gets past Cheryl at the front desk, and there was Dave who gave me his pen because mine broke. It didn’t work, but still. And in the end, there was indeed Cheryl, with a smile as thin and toxic as an Old Bay potato chip, grimly escorting me back out, into that miasma that wafted into the suburban countryside like the Devil’s B.O.
I looked back at the plant, and then out at the vulnerable country I love. I felt like Charlton Heston in a bad old science-fiction movie. I shouted: