1986, New Jersey
As Indians, we have particular honorifics for each relative that convey how the subject relates to the speaker; it helps to keep everyone straight in as few words as possible. Ama (the term for paternal grandmother) has the second largest bedroom in the house with her own en-suite bathroom. My younger brother is in the third largest bedroom, right next to her, and my sister, the baby, still lives in my parents’ master bedroom. I have the smallest bedroom, but I love it. Blue carpeting, white furniture painted with yellow flowers, coordinating and culminating in a canopy bed. I have a door I can close and invent games and stories all my own. I love my Lego, puzzles, arts and crafts, and best of all trying to find shapes in the floating dust mites, illuminated by the rays of sunlight coming through my window.
Today, I stare at the Easy Bake Oven next to my bookshelf. It was a birthday present from my roller-skating party back in the winter. Now June, I am sitting face-to-face with the toy appliance. I am not sure this is the right plaything for me. I have never baked. My mother uses our oven in the kitchen as storage for extra frying pans, karahis and dosa pans. Cakes come in a box from the Greek bakery or a plastic packet for my favorite, Twinkies. Something about the magical process of baking being available to me feels impossible. Something about the reduction in size and scope to child height of something so large, the domain of other faceless, adults, feels sinister. To be sure, the Easy Bake oven is THE toy of the 1980’s. Many friends come to see it, jealous that I have one. I will play with it and I will enjoy it, the reasoning goes. I’m in second grade so Home Economics, the class where the sixth graders learn to bake and sew, isn’t for another four years. I pull my shoulders back and let go a large breath.
Pretzel vendors in New York City gave the Kenner Corporation the idea for a child-suitable oven. The toy launched in stores in 1964 and the company sold 500,000 ovens during the first year of production. The Easy Bake Oven, available in a variety of colors, resembled a cooking range with a toy stove top, and an oven space underneath where magic happens. On February 6, 1968, Kenner was granted a patent for their design. According to the document filed, ‘the temperature generated by these bulbs is found to be adequate for baking purposes, but it is not so great that it cannot be effectively baffled, insulated and vented so that there is no danger of a child being burned by touching any exposed parts of the oven, even though it be small in size.’ They should hope so.
My 1980s’ version is shrunk down and called the ‘Mini-Wave’. It is beige and orange, reflecting the 1980s’ vibe for realism, and oddly gender-neutral which I doubt was the intention, but definitely flows from the power suits, and androgyny guiding the fashions of the day. I think the new look is so that it resembles more of a microwave oven than a cooking range. The mechanism remains the same. There is a slot on the left side to insert a baking tray filled with raw batter. The baking pan moves from the baking chamber to the cooling chamber via this passageway, left to right. A slot on the right is where a finished cake will emerge.
The oven comes with two complimentary boxed mixes and two round re-usable baking trays. Each mix will yield a single-serving chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Just add water. Baking mix plus water combined in the baking tray equals child’s play. My mother has done her bit, helping with assembly, screwing in two normal everyday light bulbs above and below the baking passageway to create ambient heat. All I have to do is plug in the toy and the light bulbs will do all the work. Although I understand the game, I still can’t fathom the ‘fun’ part. I’ve worked up the courage and a bit of curiosity, even if it seems like a dirty death trap.
I am afraid of dripping on the carpet. I am afraid of burning the carpet. I am afraid the oven won’t work; it is powered by light bulbs, after all. I remember where I spilled orange neon puffy paint on the carpet. It wouldn’t come out. The chocolate mix might not either. It’s one slot to go in, and a different slot to come out. Do I need an oven mitt? Why don’t they sell it with an oven mitt? They have provided a plastic gripper with a C-shaped opening at the end but it’s not going to protect me from the bottom of the pan. I imagine the bottom will still be really hot. I cross the hallway to get a towel from the bathroom. The towel might protect my hands but affects my dexterity, which may lead to a nasty spill on the carpet. I grab another towel to protect the carpet.
I can hear Ama snoring in her bedroom, taking an afternoon nap. I can hear my mom downstairs making dinner. I don’t think I can ask anyone for help. Besides, it’s a kid’s toy. Its whole raison d’être is that I should be able to bake a cake on my own. I try my best to open the fiddly packet on the towel on the carpet. I try not to spill any water from the bathroom sink. I mix the two. The resulting batter smells like it will become chocolate cake. I can’t time fifteen minutes for baking because I don’t have a clock nearby, nor have I learned enough math to work out when that would be, so I get really close to the baking area and try to see when it is done, watching it move slowly to the cooling area, heat on my face, in a not unpleasant manner.
After all that, when the cake is baked and cooled, I can’t bring myself to taste it. I give it to my grandmother. I am sure it is vegetarian. After all, I haven’t added any eggs. The ‘Easy’ Bake Oven and I have produced something edible. It is the first something edible I make. I am not sure how to feel about that. I didn’t bother to ice it. Out of guilt, I bake the second starter mix that comes with the oven. On those occasions we go to Toys R Us, I never ask to buy replacements. Sometimes I think it may be nice to heat up chocolate chip cookies in there. I am sure the oven would work even without the baking mixes, but I don’t have the first clue of how to make a batter. Neither does my mother. These thoughts send fear bubbling up. When the light bulb blows out, I don’t ask anyone to replace it. I give up on the oven, let it gather dust in the corner next to my bookshelf. One day, to my relief and a friend’s delight, my mom gifts her the Easy Bake Oven to take home.
Clearly, being able to use a toy to bake continues to be a joyous way to play for some children. Despite a long, complex series of mergers, the Easy Bake Oven stays in production for each successive owner. In 1985, General Mills spins off the combination of Kenner and Parker Toys. In 1987, Tonka acquires Kenner Parker. Hasbro buys the Tonka Corporation in 1991. In 2000, Hasbro drops the Kenner name entirely, and merges its products with the Hasbro offering. By the time the Easy Bake Oven enters the Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, Hasbro has sold 23 million ovens and 140 million baking mixes.
In 2006, Hasbro removes the conveyer belt and two slot model so that a tray can be placed into a chamber more resembling an oven. It turns out to be a terrible idea as almost 1 million units have to be recalled due to third-degree burns and a 5 year-old partially losing a finger. This is according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission notice dated 19 July 2007 filed by the Hasbro Corporation. The 2010s’ version is remodeled so that the oven contains its own heating element instead of relying on a light bulb. That relaunch is only available in pink or purple until a New Jersey teenager petitions the company for a gender-neutral version for her brother. The resulting gold and black model does not appear to have survived through to today. When I check the Hasbro website, the Easy Bake Oven is still for sale: $34.99 and suitable for children eight years and up. The website now says ‘adult supervision required.’ The oven is white with pink and purple stars and gold glitter. That is the only model available.
Anu Pohani graduated from Columbia in 2000 with a dual degree in Economics and English. Professionally, she has spent the last 20 years in finance using eating and making food as a creative outlet. She is finally using that English concentration. A few years ago, writing about food supplemented eating and cooking as a way of documenting her culture and experiences. Her first piece of published writing, A Mutiny, appeared in All Female Menu’s BIPOC issue, ‘Art as Activism’ in December 2020. She can be found on Twitter @AnuPohani.