40 Watts Later

Men buy cars, boats, and watches to make up for their shortcomings; some even purchase stoves. Our food writer looks back on the path that led him to 15,000 BTUs, and consults the Queer Eye staff for advice: What kind of boy goes nuts over an Easy-Bake Oven?

I’m betraying my gender by saying it, but I’ve done worse: I believe there’s some truth to the notion that emotionally small men buy big things. Big car. Big houses. Big companies. I wouldn’t be surprised if the founders of Costco and Price Chopper, emporiums of everything super-size, were men with wobbly senses of masculinity. And I find these blatant shows of manly compensation to be amusing. I roll my eyes and snicker into my sleeve whenever I watch some guy in a Hummer, blasting 50 Cent and leering at a phalanx of leggy blondes crossing the street with that stupid “How-you-doin’” look on his face. Invariably, I have to choke back the impulse to shout, “Yo, buddy, sorry about your tweeter.”

No one could ever accuse me of such obvious psychological compensations: I drive a modest car, play music at a conservative volume (except when I’m alone and Gloria Gaynor is on the radio; old disco habits die hard), and wear a watch that costs less than most DVDs. So why am I cooking on an industrial-size stove with a 15,000-BTU capacity, a burn-the-hair-off-your-forearms broiler unit, and an oven that can hold a 25-pound Christmas turkey with all the trimmings and still have room for a tableful of pie? Not to mention the stove’s vented hood, which is so powerful it can double as central vacuum cleaner.

“Ohmygod,” I said to my friend Jennie one day over lunch, “it’s a case of the cook doth protest too much. I’m no better than any of those other guys: They drive their male inadequacies; I cook on mine.”

She patted my hand and picked at her salad. “But, sweetie, you need it for your work.” I was reminded of an enormously successful food writer I know who has never used anything but a doll-size 22-inch Caloric range and has never been behind the wheel of a car.

“It’s my cousin Claire’s fault.”

“You mean because she berated you all the time?” she asked brightly.

“No, but, jeez, thank you for reminding me.”

The evil that Claire wrought was far, far worse. When I was nine years old, the entire family gathered on Christmas Day at my Uncle Tony and Aunt Vi’s house. As was customary, all of my cousins had dragged along their favorite toys, and we were shunted into the living room by the adults, who sat around the dining-room table smoking Lucky Strikes and complaining about how much our presents cost. Out from the kitchen came Claire with an avocado-green plastic box tucked under her arm, a smirk on her face. Somehow, she had browbeaten my aunt and uncle into buying her an Easy-Bake Oven—the Xbox of its day, therefore impossible to find. I dropped my jaw and my brand-new G.I. Joe. I had seen commercials for the oven, with perky girls pushing mini pans of batter in one end and pulling fully baked cakes out of the other. With a Carol Merrill swipe of her chubby hand, one girl showed me the infinite possibilities of that 40-watt light bulb, and I was never quite the same.

Seeing my thrall, my other cousins—all but one were male—harangued me until Claire grabbed my hand, led me into the pantry, and locked the door behind us. Ignoring the shouts from the other side, we sat on the floor baking and frosting. Whenever I cracked and contemplated bolting the room, she punched me hard on the arm, knocking sense back into me. She’s right, I told myself. This is the Easy-Bake Oven, as if it were a pilfered copy of Playboy and worth every fire-and-brimstone threat from a roomful of Roman Catholic priests.

Eventually, though, seeing we only had a few mixes left, Claire called it quits.

“No, no, no. Wait, we haven’t made the coconut cake royale yet. See?” I said, waggling the packet hoping to entice her.

“Tough. Deal with it.” She began gathering up her pans.

Desperate and throbbing with the strength only a nine-year-old’s sugar rush can provide, I opened the door, hurled her across the living room into the Christmas tree, and bolted the lock. Infuriated by the cousinly coup d’état, Claire pressured the boys, who were bored by my silence, into another raucous chorus of taunts. Without her to there to punch me into submission, I broke down into sobs, which they aped through the door. Later, when the jeers subsided, I cracked open the door—there on the floor was my G.I. Joe in Barbie drag.

“Well, sweetie,” said Jennie, “there you go. That’s pretty traumatic, huh? That could make anyone feel insecure and rickety for the rest of his life.” How she ever graduated with a degree in social work is beyond me. I waved over the waiter and paid the check.

Now I’m being called just this side of fey by one of the most recognized gay men on TV. I consoled myself with the fact that at least he wasn’t Carson.

Every boy has moments in his life where the old Johnson is called up to the chopping block. Some kids are strong and quick enough to turn the tables by putting other kids up there in their places, sharpening the blade, and attacking—naming themselves the victors. Other guys, like Eddie Westerland in high school, were smart enough to let their peters shrink out of the way, take the ridicule with a big laugh, and spare themselves the ax. I, on the other hand, just stood there in that pantry—and have done the same in so many other places since—and let the blade fall without so much as a fight. No wonder I need a compensatory stove.

Feeling forlorn and none the more comforted by my lunch with Jennie, I contacted the arbiter of all things masculine, Ted Allen, the cooking-makeover guru from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I asked him what would he make of an ordinary guy—not me, of course—who as a child was inordinately interested in an Easy-Bake Oven.

“Well, it’s not super butch, if that’s what you mean,” he said. This is just great, I told myself. Now I’m being called just this side of fey by one of the most recognized gay men on TV. I consoled myself with the fact that at least he wasn’t Carson. “I know plenty of guys who as boys wanted to do a lot of the things that girls did but were terrified they’d be bullied by other kids or by their fathers.”

“Wait a minute. Back up here. Are you saying it would have taken cojones to do those things, even though you would have been made fun of?”

“Back then? Big ones.”

Curdled by humiliation these past three decades, I never thought to consider my teary pantry standoff anything but cowardice and a fondness for baked goods.

“By the way, what cake was your favorite?” Allen asked.

“Yellow with chocolate frosting.” Doh! Beaten at my own game.

Later that week, I returned to my kitchen and stood in front of that kickass piece of hulking metal. I didn’t feel macho or cool, just hungry. To paraphrase Freud: Sometimes a stove is just a stove.


TMN Contributing Writer David Leite has stated a little too emphatically that he is not a food snob. (But we have it on good authority that while other people have moldering hot dog buns and withering mesclun in their fridge, he has been know to harbor lobes of foie gras, exotic mushrooms, and bottles of champagne.) He’s quick to note that he loves plain ole mac and cheese, but he was overseen recently pish-toshing at the waitress until the chef agreed to drizzle it with truffle oil. He’s not above a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish, though. He’s also the publisher of the James Beard Award-winning website, Leite’s Culinaria, and the author of the upcoming cookbook The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors From Europe’s Western Coast. More by David Leite