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Old Bay in my bag: How I make anything taste like home

Old Bay with shrimp illustration.
Josie Norton

There are the things I always keep on my person: My phone, because duh.

A tote bag, because it's easy to wash when I spill my chai all over it.

My various cards (the important ones, like my credit card, driver's license, school ID, and my frozen yogurt rewards punch card).

And a compact, individual-sized container of Old Bay seasoning.

You might be asking. "Emma, why Old Bay seasoning? Also, your skin is positively glowing today! What's your secret?"

Oh wow, thank you so much! There's no secret — it's just good genes and Shiseido free samples my grandmother sends me.

But in regards to the Old Bay, my reasoning mostly hinges on functionality. I eat nearly every meal in a college dining hall whose food can be best described as "demoralizing." A sprinkle of Old Bay can elevate anything from a dry chicken breast to a nondescript "featured fish" to even (if the pickings are especially bad) a hard-boiled egg.

A chef puts Old Bay seasoning on blue crabs in Maryland.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A chef puts Old Bay seasoning on blue crabs in Maryland.

And of course, the transformative power of Old Bay isn't limited to just the confines of college cuisine. Bland food runs wild like a plague amongst this earth! Carrying a shaker of Old Bay, I am Achilles armed with his mighty shield, running into an epic battle against unseasoned food. And even beyond its culinary uses, a container of Old Bay is a conversation piece! "Oh hey, what's that in your bag?" "Oh, just a shaker of Old Bay seasoning." "Wow, that's so cool! Will you be my friend? Also here's all the money in my wallet."

Old Bay transforms a tasteless foodstuff into a mediocre meal. You could say that it's my "spoonful of sugar." But instead of that magical syrup Julie Andrews doles out in Mary Poppins, it's orange, grainy and really high in sodium.

But aside from the functionality, I guess I keep Old Bay with me because it reminds me of home.

I remember eating a bucket of fries smothered in Old Bay while digging a giant hole into the middle of Bethany Beach, not far from where the spice blend was created. I remember the scent of seafood when my family hosted blue crab boils — the searing pain when the Old Bay coating the shells got into the cuts of my skin.

It's nice to have a bit of our pantry at the bottom of my bag. It's nice to carry something with me that reminds me of what I've left behind.

At 22, my childhood feels both like something still close enough to touch, and something that's sailed impossibly far away. When I think of home, I think of hardwood floors, the sound of boiling jjigae, of sunlight falling through a picture window. I think of our pantry stacked high with snacks, packets of dried seaweed, and its tall rack of spices. It's nice to have a bit of our pantry at the bottom of my bag. It's nice to carry something with me that reminds me of what I've left behind.


Emma Eun-joo Choi is the host of NPR's Everyone & Their Mom, a new show from Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Emma Eun-joo Choi
Emma Eun-joo Choi is a comic, writer, "journalist" and host of the weekly short-form comedy podcast Everyone & Their Mom, a show where each week anyone including comedians, Marvin Gaye impersonators, or your parents could stop by and talk about the news.