Thursday, May 24, 2012

Great Read of the Day: Easy Bake Reverie

As a fellow Easy Bake traveler who had the turquoise version pictured, I understood Lisa Sorg of the Independent Weekly of Durham in her essay on the miracle of the Little Oven That Almost Couldn't.

The original headline: Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain.

By Lisa Sorg
The (Durham) Independent Weekly

Come here, kiddos, and sit on grandma’s knee. I’ll tell you about the hardscrabble times, the lean years, when we Toughskins-wearing moppets, our shoulders scabbed and oozing from our smallpox shots, not only used phones that were attached to the wall by a cord but also baked cakes in an oven using two measly light bulbs. And they weren’t even compact fluorescent!

I see you shaking your head. But these kinds of trials are what made our generation what it is today.

The Easy-Bake Oven debuted in 1963 in a shade of deep teal unseen in nature. In addition to the oven, the plastic appliance featured “burners” and came with a pint-size rolling pin and small aluminum pans in which to make cakes and cupcakes, pies and pizzas.

The cake flavors included artificial white, artificial chocolate and artificial devil’s food, while the pie filling was All-American artificial apple. Add (real) water to the mix, slide the pan in the oven and prepare to live your dream, embodied in the slogan “Bake your cake and eat it too!“

The eating part, yes, well, there was that. The heat of two 100-watt light bulbs – fully preheated, the oven reportedly could reach 375 degrees – was ostensibly sufficient to cause molecules to vibrate and to convert starch to sugar. In 4 to 16 minutes, voila! You had a dessert concoction that tasted of industrializated food systems: treacly, mealy and faintly chemical – and oh, so good.

The Easy-Bake Oven was made by Kenner (now it’s Hasbro), the company that also brought you the Spirograph. The appliance was marketed to girls to encourage them to be like their mom: unable to get a credit card in her name, sequestered in the kitchen fixing another drab green bean casserole with Campbell’s mushroom soup and fried onion rings, and by midafternoon, pounding her third Tom Collins (Easy Shaker, anyone?) and reading "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."

There were knock-offs, of course: the Junior Chef Magic-Cool Oven, which resembled an incinerator; and the Suzy Homemaker, which one-upped the Easy-Bake by not only featuring an oven and stove, but also damn near a full kitchen, including a sink and dishwasher, perfect for scrubbing cake pans and rinsing Tom Collins glasses.

By the mid-1970s, the oven’s color scheme had taken on the drab tones of the Nixon/Ford era: burnt umber and avocado. The 1983 model appeared to have been designed by the band Men Without Hats: radioactive yellow and square with an instrument panel that could have powered the space shuttle. By then, Easy-Bake technology had progressed to the point that the oven needed only one 100-watt bulb.

In the last 20 years, the mystique of the Easy-Bake Oven has declined. Blame the drive-thru. Blame the avalanche of snacks in school vending machines, which give kids immediate access to their sugar fixes. Me? I blame the microwave. Easy-Bake had a microwave model, but why would a third-grader accept a substitute when she already knows how to use the real microwave to make dinner?

Here’s the real bummer, the proof that most of today’s toys suck: The 21st-century version, the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, comes with games, videos and downloads, but it requires no light bulbs. That’s right, no light bulbs. What’s an Easy-Bake Oven without light bulbs? Well, since it has a heating element similar to a conventional oven, it’s really just a miniature oven.

“Why wouldn’t I just use a real oven?” reads one of the online Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven FAQs.

“The Easy-Bake brand is a fashionable fun food brand that inspires tween girls to bake, share and show their creativity and expertise through an immersive brand experience.”

Now I get it. You can fake your cake and eat it too.