When I was in third grade, all I wanted for my birthday was the Deluxe Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven. I dreamed of owning it and cooking largesse meals for David Cassidy while the rest of the Partridge Family waited with Reuben on the bus. I dreamed of the Emergency! Show actor Randolph Mantooth, who I was desperately in love with, coming over to my house after I feigned a concussion and brunching with me on delights I cooked in the oven.
My parents gave me the oven, and the very first time I used it was in a smoky basement that was relegated to me and my three sisters in the ’70s. We stayed down there while my parents had their friends and neighbors over to play “bridge” which would ultimately culminate after many martinis into a Twister fracas of brightly colored neon pants, cigar smoke, frosted hair and the sound of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in the background blaring.
Our minister and his wife would attend the parties, and he usually ended up drunk and telling all who would listen that it was hard to be a square in the ’70s and that he thought he should have gone to Berkeley and “really lived” instead of choosing the ministry. His wife Naomi was always perfectly dressed but she turned ashen whenever her husband would talk this way. She wore white gloves everyday and never took them off even while playing Twister at these raucous parties. Those gloves were the only thing between her and the “twisted” flock her husband seemed so desperate to identify with.
My sisters and I were told in no uncertain terms to only come out of our sleeping bags in the basement in case of a fire. My mom told me if I started a fire with my Easy Bake Oven, it would probably cost me a Girl Scout cooking badge so I was very careful not to be the firestarter. My sister Debbie secretly smoked my mom’s Salems. She would sit at on the bottom step of our basement near the back door and blow the smoke on my Mom’s prize orchids, which always seemed a bit limper after these exchanges. Their leaves tinged with the black soot of a 15-year old rebel with a terrible shag haircut. But her cigs never started a fire either.
I had become the go-to cook for the yet-to-be estrogen filled sisters. I dutifully put on my apron and went to work once we were in the basement. I melted cheese on apple slices, cheese on Triscuits and chocolate on strawberries. I filled my sisters’ glasses with ginger ale, and we listened to Sonny and Cher and The Who once my parents were a little drunker and couldn’t hear the music from the basement as well. We played with the Ouija board endlessly asking it what our lives were going to be like.
My parents marriage, which seemed to be faltering and failing on a daily basis, had these swinging parties every weekend, and so my Easy bake oven was constantly used. My sisters’ appetites were outrageous and knew no bounds because we had not yet discovered that we needed to starve ourselves to have boys like us. So we ate like heathens and drank ginger ale by the quart.
After a summer of this cooking revelry, I started the 5th grade with a round bulbous belly that my best friend Bruce McMullen immediately took notice of. It embarrassed me because this is why he had noticed me–really noticed me for the first time, He had just softly punched me in my belly and said that my pudge was going to show when I put on the horrible one-piece red gym suits we had to buy each year from the Ben and Franklin dime store. He was teasing me, but I knew somewhere deep inside this was the beginning of my undoing as his best friend and the end of my ability to love boys just because they were a lot more fun than girls because they climb trees, curse and smell musky.
That year, Bruce had started wearing bell bottom jeans and open shirts like David Cassidy. This mean, little red-headed girl named Marla, who sported a big fat ponytail, began twirling that ponytail in his direction. Meanwhile, my stomach kept growing because now I was coming home and cooking in secret on my Easy Bake oven at night while my sisters slept.
I would plug the oven in to the outlet outside my bedroom closet. Once inside my closet, I turned on the oven and watched as the conveyor very slowly pushed through chocolate bars on graham crackers and marshmallows melting them as it went along. I did this in secret for many nights during the entire 5th grade. Each time my stomach felt hollow from the ache for my old Brucie, I would fill it with melted chocolate and marshmallow. This hollow pain, which I know now starts early and stays with us all our lives is an aching for something or someone other than what we have, and the only way to fill that ache is to stuff it with things that are usually not good for us but at the moment make us feel good.
Wanting to be loved is disastrous for your mid-section, especially if you love your Easy Bake Oven. When my parents divorced at the end of my 5th grade year, my Easy Bake oven was so worn out that my Mom put it out into the trash. It looked so sad with its tray stained brown from over-baking. It had done its best to fill the pit in my stomach that unfortunately, lies there still today.
When my daughter was in 3rd grade, she asked me for an Easy Bake Oven – she really wanted one badly, and I just couldn’t buy it for her. But ten years later, when I divorced my husband the first thing I bought for myself was the new and improved Easy Bake Oven. I haven’t opened the box yet, but I take comfort in knowing it sits in my closet with a brand new bulb ready to go. Only this time around, I plan to teach my son how to use it.