Hello, Cupcake

Forget Barbie’s Dream House. The Easy-Bake Oven brought out the Domestic Goddess in me.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

We all have a favorite toy memory. Maybe yours involves a little red wagon or beloved Stormtrooper action figure. Mine has to do with the Easy-Bake Oven that I shared with my twin sister when we were kids in the late 1980s. I don’t remember gleefully mixing up batter or frosting a cake like in the commercials. What does stick in my mind, though, is a now-infamous family car ride to my great-grandma’s house.

My sister had decided that our Easy-Bake exploits for that day should involve baking a chocolate cake to take as a present. This was a sweet gesture on her part—an attempt to participate in that very grown-up practice of arriving at someone’s home bearing an edible gift. But it was doomed. Sometime during the 20-odd minute drive from Deer Park to Carthage, my sister snuck a bite. She just took a bite right out of that cake. It was a tiny nibble, really, but there it was. I truly don’t know what came over her. Perhaps it was the supernatural lure of the still-warm space food that she’d so lovingly mixed with water and baked by the glow of a 100-watt bulb. Or perhaps she’d temporarily lost her mind. She must have quickly realized her folly, because she then decided that the only logical course of action would be to nibble all the way around the edge of the cake to hide her shame. This did not work as planned.

When we arrived, my mom saw the ruined cake, blinked, and looked to the heavens. “You might as well just finish it,” Mom half-growled to my sister from the driver’s seat. And so she did.

The Easy-Bake Oven was invented in Cincinnati in 1963 by a research and development team at Kenner Products. Kenner—named for the location of its corporate offices on Kenner Street just north of Union Terminal in Queensgate—was one of the top toy manufacturers of its day. Established in 1946 by brothers Albert, Philip, and Joseph Steiner, the company was responsible for creating a vast armada of iconic American toys, games, and novelties: the Spirograph, Stretch Armstrong, Play-Doh, Sit ’n Spin, Baby Alive, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Star Wars action figures, and—if you grew up in the second half of the 20th century—most of your happy childhood memories. Fun fact: the Easy-Bake Oven was developed at the suggestion of a New York City–based sales guy and originally conceived as a make-your-own-pretzel gizmo. But the powers-that-be at Kenner quickly determined that, at least where kids were concerned, baked goods would beat pretzels any day. It retailed for $15.95.

The genius of the Easy-Bake Oven rested in its safety features. As long as you didn’t put the thing in the sink, you generally avoided electrocution. And your chances of burning the house down were slim. Also, it wasn’t really an oven. It was a lamp inside a plastic box, which, unaccountably, succeeded in baking miniature cakes, pies, and cookies “in 6–16 minutes” (according to its cheerful publicity) using only an incandescent light bulb, perfectly calibrated cook times, and some black magic involving water and pre-mixed leaveners.

In 1967, General Mills acquired Kenner from the Steiners and the Easy-Bake Oven got its first makeover: the original teal stovetop-style model was redesigned to include a Betty Crocker logo, and Betty naturally became the mother brand of the accompanying tiny cake mixes. For each generation of models following, the toy took on the style and color scheme of whatever was hot in domestic science: In 1971, toymakers recast it in the ubiquitous avocado-drab that graced that era’s kitchen appliances. And just two years later, it got a full design overhaul that added a chute for inserting the pans and a perky poppy red color with “Tartan” labels. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the era of toy pinkification began (we’re looking at you, Barbie), Easy-Bake got its girliest redesign yet: hot pink, white, and black.

The toy’s 2011 makeover completely changed its look, mimicking today’s sleeker appliances. And this year, there’s even a boy-friendly option that’s silver, blue, and black. The transformation happened thanks to the efforts of New Jersey teen McKenna Pope, who successfully lobbied Hasbro (which took ownership of Kenner in the early ’90s) to produce a non-pink model for her baking-inclined little brother. And with that, the Easy-Bake Oven finally entered the 21st century.

I don’t remember when or why I acquired my Easy-Bake Oven; I just know that it was one of the 1980s versions that looked exactly like a microwave (an appliance that was the height of domestic sophistication at that time). And even though I was fully 7 or 8 years old, I don’t even remember how any of the finished cakes actually tasted. Because, after all, that really wasn’t the point.

When we think of those truly classic toys that stay relevant for generations, they’re often the ones that let us play at being grown up. Blocks let us practice building things up (and then tearing them down). Dolls let us practice our parenting skills (or haircutting skills, as the case often was). These toys give kids the illusion of freedom; they allow them to create something. And when a toy gives kids the ability to literally bake their own cake anytime the mood strikes, then you’ve got a toy for the ages.

Corky Steiner, son of Philip Steiner, worked with Kenner on the Easy-Bake Oven from 1967 all the way up until he left the position in  2000 (he has since worked with Hasbro in their Latin America division). Steiner remembers the extraordinary response to the Easy-Bake Oven, particularly when he set up product demonstrations in local stores like Shillito’s. “The oven was one of the incredibly phenomenal girls’ toy successes,” he says. “When you can have a toy that allows kids their independence and the ability to do something quickly, and you have all the safety checks and balances that we had, you’ve got something that’s magic. And the oven was magic.”

And so, Easy-Bake Oven, I salute you and wish you a happy birthday. You’ve had a darn good run. You’ve introduced generations of us to the dark art of pre-packaged cake mix and we have never looked back. We love your doll-sized aluminum pans, your inexplicably powerful light bulb, your teeny packets of dry ingredients, the plastic plunger that we used to push our cakes into that weird baking chute (Just like Mom’s! Except not really!). And we especially love the way you never—no matter how hard we tried—burned our eager, chubby little fingers. At least not too badly. If the universe is a good and just place, someone will bake you a tiny birthday cake.

Originally published in the December 2013 issue

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