A Light Forever Dimmed

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.

David Leite's signature

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.

Comments

  1. I never had an Easy-Bake Oven. I remember feeling “deprived” because of that lack–for about three minutes. After all, I had been using the real oven since about age four. And by age seven, I had become the family french fry cook. Fortunately for her blood pressure and delicate nerves, my mother died having never learned that my much older siblings actually had me slicing and deep-frying for them in her absence! It was decades before the scar that came from slicing a hunk of my thumb off on the mandoline faded.

  2. As a little girl, I enjoyed using my easy-bake oven. It was one of the neatest toys I ever had. I was not easily amused by a lot of toys, but this one definitely did the trick. Between my easy-bake oven and my continuous search for making the best mud pie, I knew I was destined to become a pastry chef. I did a lot of baking as a teenager, took classes during high school, and went on to advance myself at The Culinary Institute of America. I graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Baking & Pastry Arts Management. I have been in the field for over 14 years and I still love it to this day. Thank you Mr. Howes!

  3. my mom just made extra batter when she made homemade cakes and we baked that in the easy bake oven. cheaper and tasty. my grandmother was very proud that 1st word i could spell was biscuit—obviously spent a lot of time in kitchen. good for math, reading, and science skills for kids.

  4. Mine was yellow and I have such wonderful, fond memories of it. What a thrill it was to get my first one and to actually bake something in it! I’ll never forget it.

  5. Off topic, and not. Speaking of boys and cooking…I was watching “Leave It to Beaver” with my 9-year-old. I got it from Netflix and made him watch it with me against his will. “You WILL relive my childhood.” Beaver would not put on an apron at school for some project or other (the details escape me), and my son wanted to know why? I told him, “Hmm, I don’t know. How odd.” My son wears an apron for cooking—with a skull and crossbones on it—and doesn’t know that aprons are just for girls. Ha!

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