Maddie Oatman

Maddie Oatman

Research Editor

Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. A proud Boulder native, she makes time for mountain climbing, stargazing, and telemark skiing.

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Are These Cupcakes Racist?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 4:56 PM EST

*Update: After this was posted, Duncan Hines pulled their commercial from YouTube, according to The Vancouver Sun. You can still watch the video below. A Duncan Hines spokesperson told me via email that "Our intent was to entertain fans with a fun video about chocolate glazed cupcakes, and nothing more."

When Duncan Hines partnered with film studio Filmaka to release a new ad campaign on YouTube this week for their "Amazing Glazes" frosting line, their aim was to "inspire creativity during the height of baking season" and portray how their icing "makes dessert sing." The theme of the first video is "Hip Hop Cupcakes," (see below), but rather than striking a chord with urban bakers, the video just seems to be pissing them off. Readers and bloggers have criticized the film's director, Josh Binder, and the dessert company's PR department for failing to see how the cupcake characters might be mistaken for performers in blackface. Director Binder has a number of videos that might be considered "controversial," like one for Western gear in which a cowboy lassos two women to be his companions, and another that shows samurai bread loaves crying "hi-YA!" at one another.

Binder's Duncan Hines commercial shows vanilla cupcakes that—when covered in gooey chocolate frosting—begin to sing. An enraged commenter on the site Racialicious complained: "I am appalled that there seems to be not one single marketing staffer at Duncan Hines/Pinnacle Food Groups with any awareness of the legacy of US minstrelsy and racism that is inextricable from the dark brown, red-lipped, googly eyed characters" depicted in the video. Writes a Womanist Musing blogger: "Do I really need to break down why Blackface cupcakes are racist? I sincerely hope this commercial is fake, because if not, it represents a direct attack on Black people." 

Duncan Hines might have saved itself the outrage if they had searched for a different title for their bizarre cake characters other than "Hip Hop." Some viewers are perplexed at what makes the music from the video hip hop; there are no lyrics, for instance, and the music seems more focused on harmony than beat. "Black Eyed Peas sound more hip hop than that," writes an administrator on WooHa.com.

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A Map of Crowded Cows

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:53 PM EST

In "Big Meat vs. Michael Pollan," reporter Wes Enzinna profiles the Master's in Beef Advocacy program, an industry-funded crash course on how to bolster the reputations of cattle farmers and meat producers in a time when livestock prices are falling and beef consumption is the lowest it's been since 1961.

But rather than focusing so much on the PR battle, cattle farmers might woo consumers by downsizing. Much of the bad rap associated with the meat industry relates to the transformation of the small family farms into overcrowded feedlots managed by agribusiness monopolies—at least, according to a new project by Food and Water Watch, called "Factory Farm Nation."

"For several decades, agricultural policy in the U.S. has been based on this 'get big or get out' approach, which is incompatible with a sustainable food system for consumers and producers," says the project's website. Along with an extensive report on why this is true, Food and Water Watch also unveiled an interactive "Factory Farm Map," which shows the population density of pigs, cows, and chickens in each state. Both fun to play with and aesthetically eye-popping, the tool seeks to shed light on how "family farms are being replaced by factory farms, and these facilities are overwhelming some regions of the country."

Factory Farm MapFactory Farm Map: From Food and Water Watch

Take California: The map's dairy filter reveals that huge swaths of the state contain "extreme density levels" of dairy cows. Switch to the hog filter, and you'll notice how almost the entire state of Iowa is crowded with pigs, and a surprising number of meat plants too. The map allows you to click on regions within each state, so you can learn, for instance, that the number of animals in Buena Vista County, Iowa nearly doubled from 2002 to 2007. Also interesting to note: Factory farms tend to be clustered around meat packers (shown by blue dots on the map), which reflects the control these increasingly consolidated slaughterhouses exert over farmers. Just four firms processed more than four out of five beef cattle in 2007, according to the report.

Is Kombucha Really Good for You?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

As an occasional kombucha drinker, I enjoy the strange, sour aftertaste of the trendy fermented beverage. But after spending as much as five bucks for a 16-ounce bottle of the stuff, I decided to see if I could successfully—and safely—brew my own batch. I also wondered whether the claims about kombucha's health-enhancing properties had any merit.

Often mistaken for a mushroom, the culture used to make kombucha is actually a collection of yeast and bacteria. After 10 days of natural fermentation, the amalgam forms a thin pancake-looking colony referred to as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) surrounded by a fizzy, vinegar-like tonic—the stuff you drink. Remnants of the living mass make their way into bottled kombucha, which creeps some people out. "But really, it's no more frightful than when yogurt first reared its head in health stores across America in the 1970s," states one Whole Foods website. Kombucha has been consumed for thousands of years—some say it originated in Manchuria in 220 B.C.; others trace its roots to Russia—and enthusiasts prize the drink for its beneficial probiotics, organic acids, vitamins and antioxidants.

Because the fermentation happens naturally, I needed no special equipment besides a one-gallon mason jar to get the project bubbling. Brad Koester, a local kombucha brewer who also sells pickled beans and onions to San Francisco restaurants, presented me with my very own "mother" SCOBY; a gelatinous mass that resembled a small jellyfish asleep in amniotic fluid. I brewed about a gallon of green tea, added eight tablespoons of sugar, and poured all the liquid that would fit into the gallon jar with the SCOBY, making sure to cover the top of the mason jar with a thin cloth to prevent fruit fly infestation.

Maybe because kombucha brewers refer to this mass as the "mother," I couldn't help feeling like I was caring for a pet. Would I kill my SCOBY if I shook it? Would my SCOBY wither and die in my chilly Victorian house? I voiced my anxieties to Brad, who shot me back a text that said: "Patience grasshopper." I could do nothing but wait and see if the "mother" would work her magic, and I'd have little control over the results.

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