In 2019, Columbus-based Alexis Nikole Nelson started an Instagram account to record her outings where she would forage for wild foods and then prepare and eat them. Black Forager was born, and then Nelson expanded to TikTok where today nearly 4 million followers eat up her content, which is full of foraged-food commentary, jump-cuts and breakout songs. In 2022, Nelson won a James Beard Award for her social media presence. Public Lands caught up with the Ohio native to talk about foraging and diversity in the outdoors.
PUBLIC LANDS: How did you get into foraging?
ALEXIS NIKOLE NELSON: I like to kind of jokingly say that my parents didn’t give me much of a choice. My mom is so into gardening, it is kind of a meditative practice for her. She would quiz me on the plants (in the garden) on purpose, but also a lot of the weeds that were not. And she introduced me to my first ‘wild’ edible—I put wild in quotes because a lot of us have field garlic sprouting in our lawns. I just have such a vivid memory of her breaking the strands for me and having me smell and it was like a switch flipped. And my dad loves cooking and is an excellent cook. So, when I wanted to spend time with him, and when he would want to decompress, he would cook. So suddenly it just felt like these two separate activities I would do with my parents had this connection and I couldn’t get enough of it.
How did you develop your foraging skills?
I would go to summer camp. I got to learn even more wild edible plants, like black walnuts and wood sorrel and garlic mustard: Things that I wouldn’t see in the city proper living in Cincinnati. And I just kind of kept a little Rolodex going in my head. Then I graduated from college (Ohio State in 2015) and I was very broke. And an easy way to put healthy food into my diet—because ramen isn’t exactly the healthiest thing—was foraging around the city for wild greens. It’s nutritiously dense. And so prolific. And so free. And I started my social media to kind of document the recipes that I did like, didn’t like, and show people how to do the same thing. And, gosh, now we’re here.
‘Here’ is nearly 4 million TikTok followers. You have a distinct style. Where did that come from?
I was a summer camp counselor when I was in college. The way you get a bunch of unruly kids to pay attention to you is you make the thing you are teaching them fun. You add a lot of mnemonic devices. You get loud, you throw movements into things, you turn things into songs. And even as an adult, I find that was the way I enjoyed learning. So I was like, ‘Oh well, I’m going to make the content I wish I had when I was seeking out all of this knowledge.’ And also, when TikToks used to have to be 15 seconds and then 60 seconds, you had almost this race against the clock. And I just kind of crafted this very fast-paced, quick-cut, singsong style that feels very me.