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. Oh, the memories provoked by this post! I, too, had an Easy-Bake Oven, although by the time I received it I was already cooking in my mother’s kitchen. She says I began pleading “Want to help!” when I could barely speak and still needed a stool to reach the counter. Initially, I peeled the blanched tomatoes in preparation for canning and stirred the ingredients for tuna salad. Before long, I was making Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska and cooking meals for my five younger siblings in rural south Georgia, to the amazement of my family. So why did my cash-strapped parents invest their limited funds in a toy oven for me that Christmas? Perhaps they hoped to prolong childhood for a kid charging full-tilt toward adulthood. I must ask them. Anyway, my turquoise Easy-Bake was abandoned soon enough, in part because we could not afford the mixes, and in part because the big kitchen and my mother’s cookbook collection called to me with their infinite possibilities. But while the mixes lasted, I experienced the wonder of watching those cakes rise through the tiny glass window, something not possible through the solid door of my family’s oven, and I began to learn that the mechanisms for cooking are limitless—you can create deliciousness even with something as simple as a bulb.

  2. I felt a little lump im my throat when I read that Mr. Howes passed away. How I loved that Easy-Bake. I don’t think my parents had any idea what was to begin with that Christmas present. Enraptured, I would glue my eyes to the tiny window watching the miracle of a light bulb and a scant cup of batter. Those first cakes were such a success that Bing! I realized I could go into business! I bought a big box of cake mix with my allowance and started baking. Math was not my forte at age six and I never got the dry/liquid ratio right so the soupy concoctions wouldn’t rise no matter how long they sat in the “cook position.” My mother would drag me sobbing to bed after staring at the bulb for hours and still no cake. Undaunted by my first foray in the retail food world I went on to become a pastry chef and had a successful business making wedding cakes. All because of Mr Howes and a 100-watt bulb. Rest in peace, Mr. Howes. May flights of cupcakes sing thee to thy rest.

  3. I had an easy bake oven, a blue one….my mom and I hated the taste of the mixes it came with, so we’d try to make up recipes to then bake something different in the oven…eventually she just gave in and let me use the real oven!

    1. My mom and I felt the same way about those darn mixes, and we quickly resorted to regular recipes, although we just made many, many, many little cakes rather than your more practical real-oven approach! I’d like to think what happened for you is sort of the purpose of the play oven…

  4. This article and the posts bring back a lot of memories for me, too. I never had an Easy-Bake Oven. But in the ’60s, when I was seven and eight, I wanted one as much as I have ever wanted anything. My mother was also in the “we have a real oven” camp, and, although we had money for what we needed, an extra “oven” was out of the question. To her credit, she did buy me one of the largest assortments of mixes that Sears sold, and the little pans, so I could bake with those on the real oven. She helped only with the actual oven. I have some memory of how they tasted, which was not that great, but I had a lot of fun with the little mixes and they did start me on my baking hobby. But still wished for the oven!

    I didn’t know the same inventor invented the Spirograph. I did have one of those and have always thought it was a great toy.

    1. It’s lovely to hear what your mom created for you in place of what she couldn’t afford, Anita. Even lovelier that it set you on the path to baking. It’s intriguing how interests are shaped at such a young age…

  5. David, I do enjoy your writing! I, too, had an Easy-Bake Oven, which I loved. I don’t know what happened to it, but my Sno-Cone Machine is in the basement. My memories are of my grandmother rolling out dough for noodles and kreplach on a large cloth on the dining room table. I never owned a Barbie Doll—I much preferred baking to dolls.

    1. Thanks, Jamie. And you nudged a memory that was completely forgotten: the Sno-Cone machine. I remember setting up a stand during the summer at my grandparents’ house and selling cones. My mother even made different flavored corn syrups so that I could offer a greater variety. I don’t remember selling many cones over the chain-link fence, but I do remember eating a lot of the inventory myself.

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