Nature may abhor a vacuum, but, apparently, it adores symmetry. On February 16, 1992, one of the people who indelibly shaped my life—my maternal grandmother—died. Feelings of security and optimism and a sense of self, now so resolute that they seem hardwired into my DNA, got their toehold in quiet afternoons cooking with her at her ancient white stove, a triple layer of cardboard wedged under one shapely leg—the stove’s, not hers.
This February 16th, someone else who had an impact on my life died. It’s not, mercifully, The One, a family member, or a friend. But still, my life got a little dimmer—by about 100 watts. The person: Ronald Howes, Sr.
In the early ‘60s, Mr. Howes invented the toy that, powered by two low-watt light bulbs, came to delight battalions of little girls—and me: Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven. Just as my grandmother found ways of shunting my breathtaking lack of athletic prowess into hours of cooking, Mr. Howes gave me an out. And an outlet. Whenever my three cousins—Barry, TJ, and Jeff—would ask me to go out and play some form of ball (whether base, foot, or basket), I had an excuse. “I’m baking cakes with Claire,” I’d shout through the window. Claire, another cousin, was the official owner of a harvest gold Easy-Bake Oven. And when the inevitable and expected ridicule was heaped on me, I would bake with a fury.
I remember pushing the low, flat tin of batter in one side of the oven with a plastic tool and waiting those impossibly long minutes—how many? Three, four, eight, twelve?—until I could retrieve it from the other side, the cake now domed, warm, and screaming, “Eat me, David! Eat me now!” So enamored of the oven was I that I actually stole one from a neighbor on Lindsey Street in Fall River, MA. Yes, I committed a felony in the name of American baked goods. How I snuck out of her third-floor tenement with the oven under my coat, slid it into my parents’ old blue Buick with a front grill that looked like an encyclopedia salesman’s glinty smile, and set it up in the basement is beyond me. But the compulsion for coconut cake knows no bounds.
As I grew, that primary need to be close to my grandmother and all her kitchenry had to be replaced by more appropriate things (“Otherwise, how will the boy get along?” I heard muttered from my parents’ bedroom at night). So, in the name of Little League and Cub Scouts, I began to lose the connection to the two most important stoves in my life: I stepped off the chair my grandmother had always dragged to the counter so I could cook at her side, and I lost track of my pilfered Easy-Bake Oven.
Childhood rushes headlong into adolescence, which beats a hasty path to adulthood, which only reluctantly agrees to middle age. At the half-century mark, I’ve forgotten the name of that little girl, the poor victim of my crime. Gone are my cousins’ words that cut. Vanished, even, is my grandmother’s house, which was ripped down in favor of a highway. What remains? The memory of that stove. Squat, plastic, and perfect. Perhaps Mr. Howes understood the true secret of toys (he was, after all, part of the team that created the amazing Spirograph). It’s not so much the fleeting joy of playing as a child, but rather the enduring pleasure as an adult of remembering we once played.
Editor’s Note: How did Mr. Howes’ Easy-Bake Oven sweeten your childhood? Share your memories, your pre-teen baking disasters, or the launch of your pastry-chef career here by leaving a comment.