Kids have been playing at cooking for millennia. Kids in ancient Greece, medieval Europe, and colonial America all made mud pies and baked them in the sun—a messy but satisfying practice that may be pretty much defunct now in the computer-game-and-cellphone age.
Still, kids love role play and role play often means cooking. A good deal of that over the past fifty years has taken place in the Easy-Bake Oven, a toy so popular that in 2006 it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. (For a catchy and comprehensive history of the Easy-Bake, see Todd Coopee’s Light Bulb Baking.) To date, some 50 million of these toy ovens have been sold.
Toy cook stoves date at least to the mid-19th century, when the earliest models were made of cast iron and fueled with wood pellets or chunks of coal. Small-sized electric stoves appeared in the 1920s—spiffy green-and-cream enameled tin models with working burners and ovens, the latter capable of reaching temperatures up to 500F.
The Easy-Bake Oven, when it first came on the market in 1963, was, compared to its sizzling-hot predecessors, a paragon of safety, heated by a pair of incandescent light bulbs more or less sequestered from the reach of young bakers. It was available in either turquoise or yellow, and came with an assortment of packaged mixes to which one simply added water and poured into a pan. The result, provided you were patient enough to wait ten or more minutes, was a range of hockey-puck-sized cookies and cakes. The first run of 500,000 ovens came out in November of that year and sold out before Christmas.
The Easy-Bake oven evolved along the way, reflecting popular kitchen fads and décor of the decades. The Easy-Bake of the 70s, for example, came in harvest gold or avocado green to match the latest in fashionable adult appliances, and was equipped with a state-of-the-art analog clock. That of the technology-prone 90s was digitalized and resembled a microwave; and the most recent version, which wouldn’t look out of place on the International Space Station, now uses an energy-efficient heating element in lieu of the light bulb and is tricked out in silver, blue, and black.
Easy-Bake recipes also gradually moved beyond the classic cookies and cakes to pizza, pretzels, popcorn, fudge, and even a mini-sized version of McDonald’s apple pies.
While the original 1963 Easy-Bake was marketed to both girls and boys, later models were clearly intended for solely for girls, a discouraging message for future generations of chefs.
A creepy green-and-purple model, the Queasy Bake Cookerator, developed in 2002 and targeted at boys, could make Mud ‘n’ Crud Cake (with color-changing gravel), Awful Waffles (with gooey green syrup), Sewer Sludge Shakes, and Martian Invasion Cookies.
Boys didn’t fall for the Cookerator, but the current Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, tactfully designed to be gender-neutral, may be more successful. The Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven owes its more open-ended design to McKenna Pope, a 13-year-old from New Jersey, whose younger brother wanted an Easy-Bake for Christmas. Dismayed to find that the ovens were available only in pink and purple with pictures of girls on the box, McKenna launched an online petition asking that the company correct the problem.
Sadly, despite its new friendly-for-all design, the Easy-Bake Ultimate still struggles with gender stereotyping. The Hasbro website offers searchers a restrictive choice of either “Girls Toys” or “Boys Toys.” Thor’s Hammer and Captain America’s Shield are listed under Boys; the Easy-Bake Oven, for all its new look, is still all-girl.
Professional chefs, however, have no such problem. David Hoffman’s The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet is a collection of Easy-Bake recipes created by 28 well-known chefs, both male and female, among them Rick Bayless, Mark Bittman, Mollie Katzen, and Bobby Flay—who attributes his life-long interest in cooking to his childhood Easy-Bake Oven. Rather than stick with the Easy-Bake packaged mixes, which many oven owners claim taste awful, creative cooks can now use their tiny ovens to turn out truffle lobster pie, quail breast with wild mushrooms, jalapeno corn cakes, ham and spinach quiche, and kumquat-and-date sticky toffee pudding.
The Easy-Bake has always tempted adventurous kids to experiment, especially after running out of those handy packaged mixes. Many now-grown oven owners confess to using theirs, disastrously, to melt plastic pork chops. My cousins and I used ours to melt crayons.
The Easy-Bake Oven, some report, makes a wicked mud pie.