By Robert St. John
Quick, what was the most memorable Christmas present you ever received?
Time’s up. What was it? A watch? A new bicycle? A trip to a far and exotic land?
As I sit here at my desk, looking back on 51 Christmases, the answer that popped into my head immediately was not what I expected.
After spending a few minutes pondering the question, I can name the little footprint and handprint molds from my children on each of their first Christmases. Those came at great trouble to my wife who learned quickly it’s not easy to take a plaster impression of a squirming 6 month old’s hands and feet. Those were special.
Santa Claus gave me a ventriloquist dummy back in the early 1970s, but I remember that present more for the creepiness of it. That dummy always freaked me out a little. I received a BB gun in elementary school, a shotgun when I was in junior high, and several bikes through the years. I’ve been given neckties (though I never wear them), socks (though I rarely wear them), and sweaters that would win the grand prize at any ugly sweater Christmas party.
There was a lot of good music throughout the years and I still own many of those albums. But the one present that stands alone in my memory. The one that comes to my mind instantly when asked, “What was the most memorable Christmas present you ever received?” arrived 45 years ago.
In 1967, I asked for, and received, an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas.
Back then the only men who worked in kitchens were French chefs and short-order diner cooks. Knowing I spoke no French at 6 years old, my mother was troubled that I would wind up cooking in some greasy spoon on Route 66 instead of following the career path she intended for me – that of an architect.
There were probably a few other presents under the tree that year, but sitting here today, I couldn’t name one. The oven was an early ’60s Don Draper-shade of aqua. This made sense because my favorite superhero at the time was Aquaman (who, by the way, never wore aqua, but opted for green pants and an orange shirt). It came with a small cake tin, a bowl, a spoon, a spatula, several cake and cookie mixes, and a tool used to push the cooking pan through the oven so no one burned their fingers. We had to supply the 100-watt lightbulb needed to create the heat.
My brother and his friends gave me a hard time. It was a different day. Men never cooked at home. At least none of the men we knew did. Yet I was baking in a plastic oven using a light bulb. Most of the ribbing was done with their mouths full of cakes and cookies, so I took it in stride.
I even cooked pizza in my Easy Bake Oven. My friend Laura had an Easy Bake Oven, too. Hers was yellow. I read a story in the Wall Street Journal last week about a girl in New Jersey who garnered 30,000 signatures for an online petition that asked toymaker Hasbro to make their Easy Bake Ovens in colors that appealed to boys.
Actually, Hasbro made an Easy Bake-style oven several years ago geared to boys. They named it a Queasy Bake Cookerator. It flopped.
Look, here’s the deal: Any cooking toy with the word “queasy” in it isn’t going to sell. That is coming from my R&D advertising department of one, with zero years experience in marketing toys to kids.
In reading the article, though, I learned the new Easy Bake Ovens no longer use a light bulb. There is a heating element in there somewhere. Maybe they did that for safety reasons. It was probbly because of the odor that is created when a light bulb is used to cook a packet of cheap cake mix. There was always a distinct smell – not a good or bad smell, just different. Kind of like how a banana popsicle tastes like something, but it’s not banana.
born a foodie
I have always loved food. I like cooking it, eating it, talking about it and writing about it. My Easy Bake phase lasted only a year or so. I eventually started hanging around my two grandmothers and the ladies of my neighborhood and watching them cook. My culinary inspiration these days comes from those ladies, not so much from the toy oven I received from Santa.
Though a mid-’60s aqua-colored Easy Bake Oven sits in my office today. It’s in a corner high on a shelf next to a giant lava lamp and some type of trophy. It’s there to remind me I can achieve almost anything as long as the passion is there and I don’t worry about what others think.
In the meantime, Aquaman seems to have been mothballed and banished to the land of forgotten superheroes.
Ventriloquist dummies still freak me out. I try not to wear a necktie unless someone is dead or wed, and my mom is still holding out for architecture.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.