Empowered by two 100-watt bulbs

SUN JOURNAL

Cooking: Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry celebrates the influence of the Easy-Bake oven on the American woman.

December 19, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Gale Gand recalls her favorite toy the way others speak of childhood's first bikes, pets and baseball gloves. Her early years were marked strictly BEB and AEB: Before Easy-Bake and After Easy-Bake.

On Wednesday, she returns to the warmth of her childhood companion, the little oven that Gand unwrapped on her sixth Christmas. In the West Court of Chicago's cavernous Museum of Science and Industry, the award-winning pastry chef will light up her 100-watt-bulb-powered Easy-Bake and make magic for the crowd.

"This oven empowered me," says Gand, 43, owner of an elegant downtown French restaurant named Tru, where desserts lean more toward creme brulee or bergamot-flavored flourless chocolate cake than packaged cake mix.

"I don't mean to sound too New Age-y or anything, but my Easy-Bake was my first opportunity to really cook, to feed my friends," she said.

"It wasn't just pretend tea parties anymore. And I still do it. I get the same satisfaction."

Gand joins a lineup of five professional chefs and 800 children who will participate in the museum's four-day celebration of the Easy-Bake beginning tomorrow. Their plans are to decorate hundreds of tiny cakes, many of them baked in the 25 Easy-Bake ovens the staff has purchased for the cooking demonstration.

A pop culture icon

What's so special about the Easy-Bake Oven? If you must ask that question, then you probably aren't a woman in your 30s or 40s.

The Easy-Bake is a pop culture icon, a classic toy in the pantheon that includes Hot Wheels and Twister. In fact, between the toy cars and party game is exactly where the earliest Easy-Bake model, circa 1963, lodges in the museum's display of historic American toys on loan from the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.

The teal-colored oven, its fake stove top and cabinets, its mixing bowl and spoon, midget pastry roller, slide-through pans and foil-wrapped mixes are lovingly preserved and presented under Lucite like some rare set of prehistoric tribal tools.

"Women bypass Barbie and Raggedy Ann to flock to the Easy-Bake," says David Hoffman, author of "Kidstuff: Great Toys From Our Childhood," the book on which the museum display is based. "It really hits you what a phenomenon this was for females."

Hoffman, a Southern California TV reporter, has been so overwhelmed by the interest in the oven that he plans to write an Easy-Bake cookbook with famous chefs providing anecdotes and recipes.

"The Easy-Bake gave a way for girls to have their cake and bake it, too," says Hoffman. "It came out at a time when there were not a lot of activity toys for girls. It wasn't like boys and their trains and Erector Sets."

But the Easy-Bake represents more than that. It's also a demonstration of the serendipity of toy inventing in those long-ago days before action figures and TV show tie-ins set the standard.

It started in New York when a district salesman for Kenner Products had an idea.

Observing the city's many sidewalk vendors, Norman Shapiro wondered whether a working pretzel-baking device might be an appealing toy. He pitched the concept to executives with the Cincinnati-based company.

The pretzel idea didn't fly. But it did start Kenner employees looking at ovens. Their conclusion: Parents wouldn't buy a working toy oven unless it seemed perfectly safe.

"We worried that people would fear that it got hot. Well, it did get hot," recalls Joseph Mendelsohn, a former Kenner president. "How could we handle it so that people wouldn't think their little girls would get burned?"

The answer was to use two 100-watt light bulbs as a heat source and create a secondary cooling chamber.

No need to touch

Children could slide the pan into the oven; it would bake at 350 degrees (the bulbs got the small, insulated compartment plenty hot), and then slide the finished product into a cooling chamber. No little fingers would ever touch a hot pan.

"The light bulb connoted safety to people," says Mendelsohn, 69, who remains a toy-industry consultant. "Kids were around light bulbs all the time.

"It's incredible that to this day, we've had few incidents, practically none, of a child getting burned."

Kenner's owners, the Steiner brothers -- Al, Phil and Joe -- wanted to call it the "Safety-Bake Oven," but they had second thoughts that the claim might be a little over-reaching, recalls Corky Steiner, Phil's son.

Easy-Bake was a smash hit in its first year.

It was introduced to ho-hum notice at the 1963 New York Toy Fair, but TV ads wowed little girls nationwide. By Christmas, 500,000 sold (at $15.99 apiece retail) and the company couldn't keep up with demand.

"Women were literally fighting each other to get them," says Mendelsohn.

Much to everyone's surprise, sales stayed up -- year after year. Officials with toy giant Hasbro Inc., which acquired Kenner in 1991, claim sales of more than 16 million Easy-Bake ovens and 100 million bake sets (packages of pans and mixes) since 1963.

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