Nearly synonymous with traditional Thanksgiving for New Englanders, Bell's Seasoning has remained unchanged for 142 years, its ingredients carefully guarded.
From his desk, Desi Gould pulled out a small yellow box with a blue turkey on it, faded after 40 years. A Pennsylvania woman had found the seasoning box when cleaning out her mother’s kitchen and thought he might like it.
“We get things like this all the time,” said Gould, national sales manager at Brady Enterprises in Weymouth. “It’s just a seasoning, but people embrace it and have all sorts of associations.”
The incongruous blue turkey makes the box instantly recognizable as Bell’s Seasoning, created in 1867 and made by Brady Enterprises since 1971. Nearly synonymous with traditional Thanksgiving for New Englanders, it has remained unchanged for 142 years, its ingredients carefully guarded.
“Some major manufacturers have tried to copy it, and they’ve come close,” Gould said. “But it’s not the same.”
When you enter the Weymouth factory, the smell of sage and other spices is immediate. It comes from the massive 850-pound sacks of seasoning that are emptied into a machine and poured into tiny 1-ounce packages. Nearby, 400-pound sacks of breadcrumbs are mixed with bags of seasoning and packaged into bright red boxes of stuffing, which sport a beautifully browned roasted turkey.
Martha’s secret ingredient
Just last week, Martha Stewart made stuffing on her television show “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Martha” and was in a bit of a panic when she couldn’t find the Bell’s Seasoning on the set.
“I must have Bell’s Seasoning,” she declared. “I can’t make stuffing without it.”
She’s not alone in that feeling.
“It’s been part of our stuffing for at least 20 years,” said Tom Pierce, owner of Bongi’s Turkey Roast in Duxbury. “It’s the perfect poultry seasoning and gives off a really nice aroma while it cooks. You definitely know it’s Bell’s.”
The distinctly American seasoning comes from around the world. The ingredients, in order of their amounts, are: rosemary from Spain and Portugal, oregano from Greece and Mexico, sage from Yugoslavia and Albania, ginger from Nigeria, thyme from France, marjoram from Peru, and pepper from India. It is free of salt, sugar, preservatives, artificial coloring and additives.
“We don’t grind our ingredients like they used to, but we make sure that what we buy is close to resembling what it tasted like 100 years ago,” Gould said. “We use a specific type of pepper and sage and other herbs and spices.”
In addition to Bongi’s Turkey Roast, Gerard Farms of Marshfield also uses the seasoning for its stuffing. Together, the two farms sell nearly 3,000 prepared turkeys at Thanksgiving.
“It’s fantastic for flavor,” said Gerard’s manager Frank Sliver, who also uses Bell’s for the store’s gravy and his own family’s Thanksgiving meal. “It gives the stuffing that little kick it needs.”
In other parts of the country, cooks use the seasoning as a rub or baste, while locally it’s primarily used in stuffing, Gould said.
A regional brand
Like many inventions, the seasoning came about serendipitously. Boston chef and inventor William Bell actually was making a sausage seasoning when he decided, for unknown reasons, to use it for poultry, minus the salt.
He packaged it from home in brown paper bags until he opened a business on State Street in Boston, where it remained until Brady Enterprises bought the company from his descendents and moved production to its Weymouth factory and offices.
In a 10-hour shift last week, 35,000 boxes of seasoning and 25,000 boxes of stuffing were packaged, ready for shipment to East Coast supermarkets.
Featured in the book, “Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them” by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, Bell’s Seasoning is largely a regional brand, Gould said. Although more than one million boxes are sold a year, it can be difficult to find outside the East Coast, Florida and California. Still, within hours after the Martha Stewart segment last week, Gould received an e-mail from a woman in New Mexico who asked where she could find the seasoning.
“We don’t like to push it over the Internet,” Gould said. “Our focal point is to sell to retail supermarkets. On the other hand, if you live in New Mexico, we will sell it in a four-pack.”
Brady Enterprises also is widely known for its Bar-Tender’s Cocktail Mixes. Until recently, it sold pie spicers, but dropped that product as interest diminished. Last year, it launched a new line of seasoning blends – onion herb, tomato and basil and lemon pepper.
“The Bell name is so well known and we certainly know how to make these,” Gould said. “We’re waiting to see the results.”
Reach Patriot Ledger writer Jody Feinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
STUFFING FOR A 5 LB BIRD:
1/3 cup minced onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup of water or milk
1/4 teaspoon salt (if desired)
1/2 teaspoon Bell’s Seasoning
1. Sauté onions and celery in margarine or butter until golden
2. Pour vegetables and 1/2 cup water or milk over the cubed bread and toss
3. Mix in Bell's Seasoning, pepper and salt
ALL ABOUT BELLS:
Founded: William G. Bell crafted his distinctive blend of herbs and spices in Boston in 1867. Soon thereafter, “Bell’s Seasoning” was being shipped around the world out of Boston Harbor.
A home in Weymouth: Since 1971, Bell’s has been made by Brady Enterprises, which claims “40 years of experience in the food business.” Its two Weymouth facilities – including its headquarters – on Moore Road and Finnell Drive have 61,000 square feet of production space and 107,000 square feet of warehouse space.
What’s cooking: Bell’s offers an array of products, including: onion and herb seasoning, lemon pepper seasoning, tomato basil seasoning, traditional stuffing, New England style stuffing, and meatloaf and gravy mix.
And to drink: Bell’s Seasoning doesn’t just do food. The same people behind the herbs and spices also flavor alcoholic drinks with their line of “Bar-Tender” mixes. They include Whisky Sour, Daiquiri, Lemon Drop and Pina Colada.
For more info: Check out www.bellsseasoning.com