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Like a great number of men before me, I never had an Easy-Bake Oven to call my own; I had to borrow my sister’s. (I know. It’s hard out there for men.) We grew up nine years apart, and so by the time I’d turned eight, meeting the product's age requirement, the Easy-Bake my family owned was long out of fashion. Hers was a model from the mid-1980s, a bulky, Cheeto-orange beast of a toy the circumference of my head.
In spite of its hulking exterior, I used my sister’s Easy-Bake Oven with frequency and enthusiasm. I would spend Saturday mornings tearing open its pre-packaged mixes as if they were small bags of cocaine, concocting one tiny disaster after another. They all came from the Easy-Bake Oven's trove of suggested recipes—muddy chocolate cakes, dwarf-sized pretzels in the vein of Auntie Anne’s. The Easy-Bake Oven endowed me with a burgeoning sense of independence, along with a dawning self-awareness of my own culinary limitations. More often than not, the resultant dishes ended up tasting like sunscreen.
Honestly, whatever. It's an accepted social truth that what emerges from the Easy-Bake Oven tends to be objectively inedible; this is embedded in the toy’s ragged appeal. BuzzFeed's poor Sarah Burton wrote “I Cooked With An Easy-Bake Oven For A Week And Here’s What Happened" one year ago, only to give up her voluntary submission to torture on day four.
The toy's imprint on the greater American cultural landscape is sprawling; it has inspired such cookbooks as 2003's The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet by David Hoffman with contributions from such confessed lifelong fans as Bobby Flay and Mark Bittman. As of 2006, it's occupied a place in Rochester’s Toy Hall of Fame. It has even clawed its way into Silicon Valley, with some journalists prematurely christening newer products as "the Easy-Bake Oven for adults." (“The comparison's a little simplistic to me,” David Rabie, the founder of Tovala, a smart oven paired with a Blue Apron-style meal delivery service due out this winter, cautioned me last week during a brief chat.)
In many ways, the Easy-Bake Oven is the forerunner to the idea that has now become ubiquitous in food and lifestyle media—that SEO-friendly ethos that insists that there's a simple way of cooking a complex dish. It requires minimal labor without sacrificing the self-satisfaction that arises when you marvel at your own creation. With the Easy-Bake Oven, there's a promise that an endeavor too mammoth for kid brains to process— cooking—can be streamlined. It’s literally in the name.
From the vantage point of adulthood, though, it's tempting to forget that the Easy-Bake Oven is still around. So many once-ubiquitous toys have become casualties of time and memory, from the Beanie Baby to the Slinky to the Sky Dancer. Even if they haven’t been formally discontinued, it can feel as if they barely exist. But the Easy-Bake Oven has alarming endurance; it is a unique kind of American toy that has stood defiant against changing cultural, economic, and political currents. This begs a number of ontological questions, like: How hasn't our health food craze and undue fascination with wellness annihilated the Easy-Bake Oven? Hasn’t the Food Babe found some fictitious carcinogen in it yet? How has the Easy-Bake Oven maintained such a stronghold over American consumers for over fifty years?
The Easy-Bake Oven first made its debut in American stores in November 1963 under Kenner, one of America’s preeminent toy manufacturers. Kenner had arisen in the twilight of World War II, mostly famous for toys like the Bubble-Matic Gun, a bubble-blowing toy gun. The Easy-Bake Oven, created after Kenner Sales Manager Norman Shapiro saw a pretzel vendor outside a store in New York City's Herald Square and decided to transpose that basic idea to a toy, was fashioned as a bundle of three cubes with a makeshift stovetop and with a carry handle. It first came in one blindingly teal shade, pictured above.
The original Easy-Bake Oven arrived with mixes for cakes, cookies, candies, pizzas, pies, and biscuits, all pre-packaged in polyethylene-coated aluminum foil to ensure they'd last two years. Powered purely by two lightbulbs and equipped with a cooling chamber, the Easy-Bake Oven would reach up to 350° F. The ensuing process was simple: You'd open a mix, add some water, pour the batter into the supplied instrument, and slide it into the oven. You'd wait roughly twelve minutes for it to work its creaky, flawed magic. (I bought this one from a genial man on Etsy who advised me not to try my hand at cooking anything with this machine.) The product's asking price was $15.95, hefty by the era’s standards, but that didn't deter buyers. Kenner created half a million copies in its first go-around, and each one sold out that holiday season.
Kenner tripled production next season to meet consumer demands. Starting the following year, the toy would be offered in pasty dandelion yellow. Soon, commercials for the toy began running through kid’s morning cartoons along with primetime programs, endearing parents to their product with a captivating slogan: “just like Mom’s—bake your cake and eat it too!” By 1967, Kenner was acquired by General Mills, who manufactured Betty Crocker. This led to the diversification of the Easy-Bake Oven’s selection of mixes, which would now include cake recipes from the Betty Crocker oeuvre, from Angel Food to Rainbow Chip. A series of acquisitions over the next two decades—first by Tonka in 1988, and then by Hasbro in 1991—eventually led Kenner dissolving into Hasbro, bringing the Easy-Bake Oven under Habsro's umbrella.
In its fifty-three year lifespan, the product has gone through eleven mutations both cosmetic and substantive, alternately resembling a microwave and a printer and a fax machine and an open-and-load stovetop. A few of these models have been wildly imperfect, to put it lightly—the May 2006 model with a front-loading oven led to hundreds of kids getting their fingers caught and burned in the trapdoor, resulting in a full-blown product recall in 2007 of that particular model. Over time, innovation became a legal necessity: 2007's Energy Independence and Security Act outlawed the use of the 100-watt incandescent lightbulb that had once powered the oven, instead forcing the toy to adopt a more traditional, conventional heating mechanism.
The Easy-Bake Oven’s current avatar, pictured below, is sleek with rounded edges, akin to what you might see on a discarded storyboard for The Jetsons. It's virtually unrecognizable from its predecessors. It's been like this since 2011, with a small but crucial change in 2013: 13-year-old McKenna Pope of Garfield, New Jersey sought to rectify the product's historically female-gendered advertising. (One exception? In 2002, Hasbro experimented with the “Queasy-Bake Oven,” a modest-selling “boy’s” version of the toy that offered such pandering delights as “Crunchy Dog Bones.” It was disgusting.) Pope mounted a public campaign on Change.org urging Hasbro to, in her own words, “feature males on the packaging and in promotional materials for the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, as well as offering the product in different, non gender specific colors,” citing her four-year-old brother’s budding aspirations toward being a chef. The company finally issued a corrective at Pope's urging, creating a black version of the product “for boys.”
This anecdote is a testament to the toy's fortitude: Even as we move past the gender binary, the Easy-Bake Oven will not disappear; it will simply adapt to our shifting mores. Around the time Hasbro rolled out the Easy-Bake Oven's black design, the toy was coincidentally approaching its 50th anniversary, prompting Canadian toy historian Todd Coopee to write Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy-Bake Oven. In the book, Coopee spends 178 pages tracing the lineage of the toy as well as its various remixes over the decades, exhaustive in detail and care.
"The story of the Easy-Bake Oven is a microcosm of post-war America," Coopee posits in the foreword to his book. "It traces the birth and evolution of a new popular culture that celebrated American invention and playfulness while reinforcing family-oriented values and traditional gender roles." To him, Kenner was made up of what he terms "a group of enterprising post-war individuals and a toy company that fostered research and development, enabled innovation, and nurtured teamwork to bring new ideas to life."
I asked Coopee last week what’s shifted about the landscape for Easy-Bake Ovens in the three years since his book came out—whether sales have spiked or stagnated. His answer was straightforward: “Nothing much has changed, really,” he told me. "Most toy companies like Hasbro have staple products in their product line that sell year after year after year, and they don’t have to spend a lot of marketing dollars on them. The Easy-Bake Oven is one of them. There's not a ton of fluctuation."
Indeed, finding a few hours to kill, I decided to test his thesis, which I regarded with a dose of suspicion, especially because I hadn't seen an Easy-Bake Oven in the wild for the better part of a decade. I spent this weekend calling up Manhattan and Brooklyn’s larger chain stores—Toys ‘R’ Us, Sears, Walmart, Target—for signs of the Easy-Bake Oven. (The hard labor of a journalist.) And there it was, in ample quantity and stock at every store in both black and purple. My suspicions suck!
Coopee suggested that Hasbro has effectively learned how to monetize the narrative that has become embedded into the Easy-Bake Oven's mythos, which is precisely why the product shows no signs of atrophying. “Everyone had an Easy-Bake Oven growing up,” Coopee reminded me. “It’s like rite of passage. Your grandma may have owned one, your mom owned one, and then you did. And your kids probably will, too."
Ah, yes, nostalgia—that potent capitalist drug. No matter these reinventions, the Easy-Bake Oven's core objective has always been the same: give kids the confidence that they can cook for themselves, anticipating a time when their parents or caretakers won't be there for them. There will be a class of American kids creating demand for this product, because this fervent, monomaniacal desire for independence is not an instinct we will outgrow evolutionarily. The Easy-Bake Oven is one of those constants of American culture, always there even when we aren’t looking.
Remember your first Easy-Bake Oven? Never have one? Let us know in the comments!