The creator of the Easy Bake Oven, Ronald Howes, passed away today at the age of 83. It seems that he lived a full and happy life, being the inventor of a toy that taught millions of children the joys of baking (and the dangers of touching a heating element, before the oven was made more child-friendly sometime in the 1970s). Hundreds of thousands of tiny, tiny, not-very-good cakes will be consumed today in his honor, but we wanted to honor Howes in a different way: reminiscing fondly about all the vintage food-related toys of our childhood.
Food was the subject of most of our childhood games growing up. Not terribly interested in either Transformers or Barbie dolls (except for the Barbie that came with her own vanilla-scented kitchen and accessories -- we can still smell them now), our playtimes revolved around activities like creating restaurant menus from manila paper and crayons, making mud pies and trying to convince our granddaddy to eat them or setting up plastic food items along the bookcases in the house and pretending to go grocery shopping with our molded plastic shopping cart. (It was orange and yellow and was basically cooler than 50 Little Red Wagons put together.)
A striking memory from childhood is going to the old Children's Museum of Houston with our mother and getting to hit up the most exciting exhibit there (to us): The child-size grocery store that mimicked a regular grocery store in every single regard, except that it was stocked with plastic foods and no adults were allowed inside. It even had wee, working cash registers and conveyor belts at the cashwrap. We were in heaven -- until the museum volunteer working the entrance tried to hand us a "shopping list" that had pictures of the food items we were supposed to pick up instead of a list with the names of the items. Our incensed, epic, four-year-old tantrum at this indignation -- "I can read, THANK YOU VERY MUCH" -- is legendary in the family to this day.
Below are five of our favorite food-related toys from our youth. What are yours?
5. Snoopy Sno Cone Machine: From what we recall of our own machine, this sno-cone maker didn't make particularly good or even particularly recognizable sno-cones. But it was molded in the shape of Snoopy's dog house, and what's not instantly loveable about that? We seriously doubt that any palatable sno-cones were made with this cash cow, but if you were one of those who figured out how to make great sno-cones with it, let us know.
4. Play-Doh Fun With Food: We had the burger-making iteration of this line of Play-Doh toys and vaguely recall trying to trick neighborhood kids into eating the tiny burgers we made out of Play-Doh. They neither looked, felt nor smelled like burgers in even the remotest sense, which could be why those kids shunned us for years and looked as us funny at the bus stop.
3. Mr. Potato Head: Technically only food-related in the sense that a potato is food, this minor point doesn't really matter. Mr. Potato Head has been a staple of every kid's toybox from its invention in 1952, when children were give pieces of plastic shaped like facial features and told to stick the sharp, metal end of those pieces into a real potato to play with. Of course, that was the same generation that had fun with things like a hoop and a stick. Times changed and eventually a molded, hollow plastic potato was subbed out for the real potato, reducing the chance of injury and giving kids a place to store the little stick-in-able pieces.
2. Kitchen play sets: We never had a play set as a kid, and greatly envied the little girls (and boys) in our neighborhood who did. And we certainly never knew anyone who had as elaborate a play set as the one shown above, but we would have given them all the pudding snacks in our lunch box for a week just to come over and play with that bad boy if we had.
1. Easy Bake Oven: Sadly, we also never had an Easy Bake Oven as a child. Our mother was oddly indignant (it runs in the family) about the fact that the heating element had been swapped out for something that poses far less risk to an unattended child, and used to mutter things like, "When I was a kid, we would learn our lessons from toys - now they can't even hurt you anymore. If you were stupid enough to burn your finger, that was your fault and you probably never did it again." Nevertheless, the idea behind the oven was genius, allowing children to bake kid-sized cakes with glee since 1963. And we understand that the newer Easy Bake Ovens do have true heating elements once again, so maybe our mom will finally get us one for Christmas this year.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.