Two days ago, a friend made a Facebook post that referenced the Christmas section of the old Sears Catalogue that used to come out once a year. The release of the Sears Christmas Wish Book was a momentous event every fall. I couldn’t tell you what any of my first-grade readers looked like, but I can still recall almost every page and item of the toy section of the Sears Catalogue.
Christmases past hold a strong place in my memory. There were certain traditions that were observed in my childhood, that are absent from my current family Christmases. My brother and I were huge fans of tinsel and took great delight in throwing gobs of icicles on our tree in an indiscriminate manner. The end result wasn’t always the prettiest tree on the block, but it was shiny. My wife doesn’t do tinsel, and I miss it.
The Chipmunks Christmas album was always a mainstay on the turntable during the season. It drove my grandfather crazy, and he hid it from us often, but my brother and I always found it and cranked it up as loud as we could in retaliation. No one in my house these days appreciates the unique holiday stylings of David Seville and the Chipmunks.
Looking back on childhood Christmas gifts there are a few that I specifically remember— for better or worse— from those early days. Santa Claus left a ventriloquist dummy by the fireplace in the early 1970s. I remember that present more for the creepiness of it. 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 gifted neckties (though I never wear them), socks (though I rarely put them on), and sweaters that would win the grand prize at any ugly sweater Christmas party.
There was a lot of good music gifted to me 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 53 years ago.
In 1967, I asked for, and received, an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. It is, by far, the most memorable Christmas gift I ever received. If someone were to ever make a Citizen Kane-style movie of my life, that Easy Bake Oven would be my Rosebud.
That Christmas would have been the last one we celebrated while my father was still alive. No one knew that December, but our lives would change forever just three months later. I don’t know if my father scoffed when I asked Santa for an Easy-Bake Oven, I like to think he didn’t. No one has ever told me that he did. The point is, he bought it, and I opened it up on Christmas morning.
In the 1960s, the only men who worked in kitchens were stuffy French chefs and short-order diner cooks. I think my brother got a BB Gun that year and took great delight giving me a hard time about playing with what he considered a “girl’s toy.” Though I will note that most of the time he was giving me grief, he was doing so with his mouth full of tiny cakes, cookies, and pizza that came from the Easy-Bake Oven.
It was a mid-60s, aqua-colored, Easy Bake Oven and it cooked foods using the heat of a 100-watt lightbulb. It was a blast. GI Joe spent a few years playing second fiddle to that toy oven.
A few years ago, Hasbro made an Easy-Bake style oven that was geared to boys. They named it a Queasy Bake Cookerator. It flopped. I would imagine any cooking toy with the word “queasy” in it would have a hard time selling.
Twenty years ago I gave my daughter an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. It was one of the last presents my daughter opened that Christmas morning. She was eager to begin baking as soon as she opened the box, but we didn’t have a 100-watt lightbulb in the house. After a quick trip to the 24-hour drugstore, and an even quicker look at the instructions, she plugged it in. We made a yellow cake with chocolate icing. I can safely say that it was the highlight of my holidays that year.
That little cake was one of the best I had ever eaten. Not because of the quality of the Hasbro Toy Company’s cake and icing. Not because of the size of the finished product (it could be eaten in a good three or four bites), but because of the sheer joy and complete adulation shown by my daughter as we made a miniature cake cooked by the heat of a light bulb, by the light of our Christmas tree, on the floor of our den.
I don’t know if they even make Easy-Bake Ovens anymore. My daughter’s old Easy Bake Oven didn’t use a light bulb. There was a heating element in there somewhere. Maybe they did that for safety reasons. It was probably 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— of Easy Bake Oven food. It’s akin to a banana popsicle, which tastes like something, just not banana.
I have always loved food. I like cooking it, eating it, talking about it, and writing about it. My Easy Bake phase only lasted 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.
Flashback to the opening night of my first restaurant in 1987, we fired our chef. I was one of the next men up. The extent of my cooking ability as a 26-year-old, about-to-be-chef was that I had asked for, and received, that Easy Bake Oven when I was six years old. It all worked out.
For years, that Easy Bake Oven sat in my office, high on a shelf in the corner, next to a giant lava lamp and some type of trophy. Two years ago, the Mississippi Arts Experience Museum in Meridian, Mississippi asked for the Easy-Bake Oven to add to my little corner of their exhibit of culinary Mississippians. It’s there today. Maybe it will stand as a reminder to others that one can achieve success in life— and in a career— despite the world’s labels and norms, as long as the passion is there.