Anyone who knows me—family, friends, coworkers—will tell you that I have a playful perspective on food. I love talking about it or even singing—yes, singing—about it, making up original little ditties when something is particularly delicious. I enjoy cooking, perusing magazines for new recipes, and watching television chefs expertly combine flavors to create mouthwatering dishes. Some of my friends have suggested that I would be ideally suited to a job title of “Snacks Coordinator” because I almost always have a stash of snacks close at hand. Of course we all know food is a necessary energy source, but look closer and you’ll discover that it is also an excellent source for play, an idea that toymakers have been privy to for decades. Whether with a miniature coal-burning stove or an electric range, such as the Little Lady from 1945, youthful chefs have long been encouraged to experiment in the kitchen. The more safety-conscious Easy-Bake Oven appeared on the market in 1963, using the heat emitted by an ordinary incandescent light bulb to cook a variety of delectable treats. This resulted in a variety of new snacks and fewer injuries compared to the exposed heating elements of its predecessors. It’s no wonder the Easy-Bake Oven earned a coveted spot in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in 2006.
Play kitchens and food sets have become standard toys for many children. As a little girl, Fisher-Price picnic and dessert play food sets ranked among my most prized playthings (as I recall, the single orange cheese slice seemed particularly life-like). With the help of a miniature tea set, I spent hours creating meals, hosting parties, and dreaming of owning one of those child-sized molded plastic kitchens, complete with sink, stove, and wall-mounted telephone. Today, play kitchens come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. How about a Zoodleland penguin refrigerator or turtle stove? Food sets have also taken new forms. For instance, the Green Toys Pizza Parlor play set encourages children to build their ideal pizza by assembling interlocking pieces of crust, sauce, cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms, tomatoes, and peppers—a process that not only helps to develop fine motor skills, but hopefully a taste for vegetables toppings as well.
The Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, first popularized in the 1970s, allowed children to create their own frosty treats by simply turning a handle. My brother treasured his Snoopy machine as a child, so when the popular gadget recently reappeared on store shelves, it seemed only fitting that I give one to his three-year-old son as a birthday gift. Together, the two of them made good use of the contraption, playfully concocting icy refreshments all summer long. As adults, we are entertained by food in a number of ways. Cooking at home provides a creative outlet for many of us who enjoy experimenting with new flavors and recipes. If you’ve visited a Japanese hibachi restaurant, you’ve likely watched in awe as chefs playfully slice, dice, and toss your dinner into the air before presenting it to you artfully on a plate. If you appreciate fine art, chances are you’ve admired artwork featuring food at least once, perhaps a still-life painting of fruit, Andy Warhol’s famed Campbell’s soup cans, or one of Edward Weston’s photographic pepper prints. If you prefer gaming to art, you might have earned a high score playing Food Fight or Fruit Ninja. Maybe you’ve even helped feed a hungry yellow bear in Winnie the Pooh’s Rumbly Tumbly Adventure game. Whatever your interest or age, food doesn’t just nourish our bodies, it nourishes our playful side as well. So the next time you find yourself seated at a tea party with a child, watching your favorite television chef at home, or simply enjoying a good meal, savor the entertainment. I know I will.