Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary

You might not immediately think of potatoes when you think of Florida, but it turns out the crop has deep roots there.

On June 4, Carlynn Crosby successfully defended her thesis “Potato Capital: Agriculture, Labor, and the (Un)Making of Hastings,” which shed light on the labor practices of Florida potato farmers.

“My thesis examines the (r)evolution of agricultural labor in Hastings, a small farm town in northeast Florida,” Crosby said. “I’m a Florida native, so I’m always fascinated by little nuggets of Florida history, particularly historical foodways. I was listening to James Hannaham, the author of the novel ‘Delicious Foods’, give a talk and my ears perked up a little bit when he referenced events on a Hastings farm that inspired parts of the story. Curious, I did a quick Google search and found a troubling incongruity: Hastings was once considered the Potato Capital of Florida (potatoes, who knew?), but it was also recently the site of a deeply disturbing system of debt peonage.”

As she researched, she found that agricultural labor, particularly performed by black workers, has recursively been exploited in Hastings.

“Those systems revolved around structures (e.g. white power, imperialism, capitalism) rooted within Florida’s—and Hastings’—agricultural system,” she said.

Although Crosby, who earned her B.A. in English and B.S. in public relations from the University of Florida, as well as a graduate certificate in food writing and photography from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, has vast experience as a writer, she said the research process for her thesis felt like it had a mind of its own. She used her term papers to flesh out ideas that could be helpful, and she spent time doing archival research in Washington D.C.

“I looked through microfilm that the Library of Congress had from the British colonial tenure in Florida; I dug through old newspapers; I combed through local and state archives to look at photographs,” Crosby said. “I remember printing out maybe 30 or 40 photos and spreading them out on the table in the grad room at Barnard and just staring at them for maybe an hour, sorting them and moving them around to sketch out of what the harvesting process looked like in the 1940s. And I was outlining almost constantly, looking for any gaps in my research. I think I have maybe 15 different outlines floating around.”

Her lightbulb moment came when she began working on her first chapter, which she wrote last. That’s when she thought, “Oh, that’s what this is about.”

In addition to writing and researching, Crosby had an assistantship with the Southern Foodways Alliance as a Nathalie Dupree Graduate Fellow.

“I’m also on the board of the Graduate Association for Food Studies, the graduate student caucus of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, as the conference coordinator,” she said. “I was in charge of planning this year’s bi-annual Future of Food Studies conference for grad students, to be held in Oxford, before the pandemic broke out. While the conference is postponed, I’ve stayed on the board to help out with digital programming.”

Carlynn Crosby (bottom left) after a successful thesis defense on June 4 with her committee (clockwise from top left) Leigh Anne Duck, Catarina Passidomo, and Jessie Wilkerson.

In the midst of balancing graduate school, her assistantship, and planning a conference, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in her off-campus life, too.

“Right around the time that campus closed, I was laid off from my job as a manager at the Saint Leo Lounge on the Square,” Crosby said. “It was a rough few weeks, so I decided to postpone my defense, originally set for the spring, to ease some of the pressure I was feeling. I think it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in graduate school. I didn’t have much left to write, so I was able to wrap up in a way that felt healthy and not overly taxing. I’m excited for a remote defense because I can wear my house slippers. I take my luxuries where I can get them.”

Crosby also has a personal essay coming out in Gastronomica in the fall, and a book review scheduled to publish in September, and is working on a book proposal with Catarina Passidomo and Cynthia Greenlee.

Passidomo is also her thesis advisor, and her committee includes Jessie Wilkerson, and Leigh Anne Duck.

Passidomo, Southern Foodways Alliance Assistant Professor of Southern Studies and assistant professor of anthropology, said that it’s been a pleasure to work with Crosby for the past two years.

“Carlynn came to the M.A. program in Southern Studies full of ideas and enthusiasm, and has sustained and deepened her intellectual curiosity during the course of the program,” Passidomo said. “She has a particular interest in theory, and continues to seek out new and complex frameworks for interpreting the South and its connection to food and labor. Her thesis is extraordinarily well written and thoughtful, and makes meaningful contributions to our understanding of the South as a constellation of sites and cycles of exploitation along multiple axes.”

Despite the setbacks, Crosby said she enjoyed her time at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, taken a lot of wonderful classes, and read a lot of wonderful things,” she said. “I think the flexibility of the curriculum, the support of the faculty and staff, and the diverse interests of the cohort make it an ideal master’s program.”

After graduation, Crosby plans to take a gap year to investigate doctoral programs.