The year was 1968. It was my 7th Christmas. Also, the first Christmas after my father died. The only thing I asked for that year was an Easy Bake Oven. When my mom took my brother and me to visit Santa Claus at the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans (because that’s where the real Santa always was, those others in the stores back home were just helpers) I told the Big Guy that the Easy Bake was the only thing on my list, and all I wanted. When my older brother found out what I asked for he thought it was hilarious and wondered why I wanted a “girl toy.”
Boys didn’t cook back then. Maybe French chefs in fancy restaurants, or short-order cooks in diners and cafes, but that’s about it. There had never been a boy in one of the ads for Easy Bake Ovens. I’m sure I saw the ads while watching cartoons on Saturday morning, and it struck a chord deep inside me that I wouldn’t even truly discover until years later.
For those born after 1980, an Easy Bake Oven was a plastic toy oven that used a 100-watt lightbulb as the cooking element. It came in yellow or blue with a set of miniature pans, a few tiny utensils, and a couple of small samples of cake and cookie mix.
My grandmother was the main cooking influence in my life. It was probably the time I spent hanging out in her kitchen that made me want the toy oven. Cooking has always meant “love” to me.
I cherish the neighborhood I grew up in and have such strong and fond memories of all aspects of my life in those days. It’s almost unnatural to have such an adoration and strong attachment to a group of streets, houses, people, and memories. Growing up as the only kids in the neighborhood without a father could have had a real stigma attached to it. Fortunately, my father purchased lots with his childhood friends and they all built in the same area. They were all around the same age, so their kids were born around the same time. I didn’t have two parents, I had one step better— an entire neighborhood of parents.
It took me a long time to realize the primary reason that neighborhood, and those people, still hold such a special place in my heart. They took in a widow and her two young kids and wrapped their collective arms around them. In what should have been one of the most tumultuous periods in a young boy’s life— dealing with the aftereffects of a father’s death— there were a dozen loving and caring fathers, several mothers from another brother, and an overabundance of what would become lifelong friends with me on a daily basis. I have always believed I had a blessed and amazing childhood. I have my friends, and my parent’s friends, to thank for that. They were there when I needed them most. I hope I have been there for them as well.
It’s probably why I live a few blocks from there still.
I believe that the Easy Bake Oven had the same connection and appeal. I wasn’t planning a career in the restaurant business at that point. But there must have been something deep inside me that was searching for something with which I could connect. I believe people are wired from birth with that thing that they were born to do. Unfortunately, many people never discover that thing. At 19, I knew what I wanted to do, what I was supposed to do, actually, what I was wired to do.
The cooking phase I went through with the Easy Bake Oven faded after we moved to the new neighborhood on Bellewood Drive. Twelve years after that move— when I was 19— I began working in restaurants and instantly fell in love with the industry. Seven years later I opened my first restaurant. When the chef was fired opening night, I ended up in the kitchen where I spent the next four years working 90 hours a week cooking in a professional kitchen. The extent of my cooking experience at that time had been the time I spent with that Easy Bake Oven 20 years earlier.
As strange as my brother thought it was that I ask for an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas, he never minded eating the little cakes, cookies, and pizzas that came from it. There was a certain smell that came from cooking with a 100-watt lightbulb. It’s nothing that I have encountered since. But I know if I ever smelled it again, it would take me back to my childhood room on 22nd Avenue during days when some type of comfort, or distraction was sorely needed for a seven-year-old boy.
Today my Easy Bake Oven is a part of the permanent collection at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience museum in Meridian, Mississippi (The Max). They asked for it and I was happy to donate it as a part of the exhibit that features me. I’m not sure what purpose it will serve there. Though, maybe there’s a young kid out there who has suffered a major loss in his or her early childhood who will connect with it as I did, and unknowingly discover a heretofore hidden passion for something he or she was born to do.
This week’s recipe: RSJ’s Italian Cream Cake