'It bakes like magic!" Those words from a 1963 TV ad summed up the appeal of the Easy-Bake Oven, which made an ordinary domestic chore seem miraculous. A little powder and water and two light bulbs was all it took to make edible treats, and to sell more than 30 million toy ovens.
"Nearly anyone born since 1955 has some memory of baking with – or eating from – an Easy-Bake Oven," writes Todd Coopee in his new history picture book, Light Bulb Baking, about the 50-year-old gadget's continuing career. In North America at least, we've all been affected by what Easy-Bake has taught generations of children about convenience as a prime kitchen virtue, and by what it showed industry about how to market cross-branded fantasies to kids.
My older sister had an Easy-Bake Oven, and sometimes let me eat what she made. No toy of mine could match up to one that fed you fresh treats. Like everyone else, I was also impressed with the fact that a light bulb gave off enough heat to cook anything. Easy-Bake prompted my first dim realization that there was heedless waste in the way we lived; my ecological consciousness, such as it is, began with this toy.
That wasn't at all what Kenner Products, which first marketed the toy in 1963, had in mind. Easy-Bake brought a quasi-magical process and edible result to the age-old game of "playing house." It also prepared kids for the changes the food industry was wreaking in the adult kitchen. Easy-Bake was a fun-filled propaganda machine for subverting the progressive but dour principles of what used to be called home economics.
"Home Ec," a form of which was taught for decades in public schools, began in the late 19th century as an attempt to give domestic work a scientific basis, using research into nutrition and child development. Wealthy advocates such as Lillian Massey sold several universities on the movement's educational agenda (Massey even built a grand neo-classical headquarters for the University of Toronto's Department of Household Science, at the corner of Bloor Street and Queen's Park). An expanding army of well-trained women – no gender equality was foreseen – would improve society one household at a time.
Factory-made baking mixes came out of the same food-science stream, but had a totally different objective. The cake mixes that first came on the market in the 1930s made it unnecessary to know anything about baking, and didn't even list all the ingredients in the package. The aim was to free the cook from a portion of her kitchen drudgery.
Easy-Bake emerged from the box-cake boom of the 1950s, and brought craft-ignorant baking to the preteen customer. The three steps to autonomous cookery, as shown in a 1972 TV ad, were supposedly making mud pies, helping Mom and using your Easy-Bake Oven to make your very own treats.
The first model was an L-shaped, boxy-looking thing that didn't much resemble an oven, except for the fake range elements over what was actually the "cooling chamber." Easy-Bake designs got more oven-like in the late sixties, with a harvest gold, double-oven model with fake wood grain in 1970, and a "warm-bake oven" in 1973 that used hot water instead of light bulbs and was certainly the grooviest Easy-Bake of them all.
In 1978, Easy-Bake made the genius move of mimicking the look of a microwave oven, the instant-food appliance par excellence. The microwave was still relatively rare and expensive, and it too worked "like magic," cooking food without heating the air around it.
The latest Easy-Bake models look like aerodynamic toaster ovens, which makes sense, since the heat source is an electric element. The incandescent light bulb is going out of production and taking Easy-Bake's main magic with it, after the toy's half-century as one the few gadgets to use the bulb efficiently. The new ovens also use "gender-neutral" colours, though Easy-Bake's one determined pitch to boys, 2002's Queasy Bake Cookerator, was not a success. The latest TV ads show girls singing and dancing around the kitchen, as in a music video.
Like razors and pod-coffee machines, an Easy-Bake Oven requires continuing purchase of proprietary refills. In 1967, General Mills bought Kenner and launched a potent cross-brand promotion with GM's Betty Crocker mixes that ran for 18 years. More than 150 million mixes and baking sets have been sold over the life of the toy, which may be one reason why its retail price in 2004 was the same as it was in 1969: $19.99. Recipes for homemade mixes abound on the Internet, but Hasbro, which bought Easy-Bake in 1992 and has cross-branded with McDonald's and Pizza Hut, warns against using anything but mixes "specifically formulated and tested for compatibility."
The latest variations on the Easy-Bake theme don't require the toy oven, or even actual baking. The Easy-Bake Microwave and Style Kit contains mixes that you cook in a microwave, as well as moulds, fondants and icings for decorating the results. Decoration is the whole game with the Easy-Bake Treats! mobile app, in which virtual cakes are dressed up with imaginary icings, then shared on Facebook.
Virtual baking means no calories, which plugs into another cultural obsession we're passing on to our kids. At least a baking app can't yield the kind of disappointment my sister and I half-hid from ourselves, when her treats turned out to be less delicious than we hoped. Easy-Bake has always been about dreams first, memories second and reality third.