Using Your Easy-Bake Oven Is About to Become Difficult

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Most every girl born since 1960 has had one of her earliest cooking experiences with an Easy-Bake Oven. One of the rare toys that actually accomplishes something, the Easy-Bake is heated by a 100-watt light bulb. What could be a more permanent fixture of modern life than a light bulb, its designers at Kenner Products must have thought when they created and launched Easy-Bake in 1963. Of course we'll never have trouble about that.

How times change. Come 2012, environmental regulations will restrict the sale of light bulbs, specifically that 100-watt incandescent. The compact fluorescent lamps that will replace them are more energy-efficient, but for precisely that reason, they just don't give off much heat. A CFL bulb won't cook your sparkly-pink Easy-Bake Betty Crocker Sugar Cookies, or much of anything else.

The company has announced that it plans to release a whole new product, the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, that will introduce "a new way to bake for the next generation of chefs." The new toy will feature "a heating element that does not use a light bulb and offers an extensive assortment of mixes reflective of the hottest baking trends for today." One hopes that the aforementioned hot baking trends include more natural ingredients and fewer preservatives and artificial colorings.

Here is the irony: Hasbro Inc. (HAS), the company that now owns Kenner and the Easy-Bake product line, brought back the retro design of the toy that today's parents remember from their childhoods, and ditched the 2003 "modern" revamp that customers didn't care for -- even though, presciently, that unit didn't use a light bulb for heat.

Americans Love Our Light Bulbs

In part, the downfall of the redesigned toy can be blamed on a safety recall of nearly a million ovens. There were 29 reports of bruised or squished hands and fingers, and five reports of burns. However, for the most part, the revamped ovens worked as expected. The nostalgic regrets expressed over the past few months over the upcoming reinvention of the Easy-Bake Oven are a clue that customers' preference for the old-fashioned light bulb-powered version has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with our love affair with the way things used to be.

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We're all loathe to lose the incandescent bulb. Not only does it bake cookies appropriately slowly in our children's retro toys, it just looks right to us. It's part of our country's iconography: What idea doesn't have a light bulb over it? What picture of our famous innovators can be sketched without Edison's curvy creation? Many consumers report that the CFLs don't last nearly as long as advertised, and there major concerns about mercury toxicity from discarded CFLs. It's understandable that we don't want to let go of our incandescents, and the fuss over the Easy-Bake Oven is just one more manifestation of that.

With the retirement of the incandescent bulb in 2012, all existing Easy-Bake Ovens will be useless, once the light bulbs inside them have finally baked their last cupcakes. Somewhere between 16 and 25 million Easy-Bake Ovens have been sold since 1963, and it's not a stretch to expect that at least 4 or 5 million of them are still in operation. All but a few collectors' pieces will be destined for the landfill once their heating elements are no longer available in your neighborhood grocery store.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has introduced a bill to save the incandescent bulb from its fate. A Hasbro spokeswoman told DailyFinance the company was "watching the developments with interest," but that it "stood by" its earlier statement regarding the fall launch of the integrated-element Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven.

The general adoption of the CFL seemed nothing but sensible when Al Gore first began encouraging us all to save energy and money by replacing our bulbs. The reality of the new world lighting order seems far more complex, fraught with everything from mercury-tainted landfills and disappointing efficiency/expense results to the obsolescence of some of our most beloved toys.

Perhaps America's new light bulb should have spent a little more time in recipe development.

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