Alexis Nikole Nelson's Very Good Year: The Black Forager Reflects on a Jam-Packed 2021

From a commercial with Martha Stewart to focusing fulltime on content creation, from growing to 3.3 million followers to writing a forthcoming cookbook, Alexis Nikole has been busy.

Brittany Moseley
Columbus Monthly
Alexis Nikole Nelson

After an hour-plus long interview over coffee at Two Dollar Radio, Alexis Nikole Nelson and I are finally wrapping up. (That’s one thing you should know about Nelson: Talking to her is like talking to your best friend. It’s easy to lose track of time.) As we take our purchases to check out—we each pick up a copy of the indie publisher’s “Guide to Vegan Cooking”—the employee who rings us up tells Nelson how much she loves her videos. Nelson gets the biggest smile and profusely thanks her for the kind words.

This happens to Nelson a lot more nowadays. When I interviewed her last February for Columbus Monthly’s sister publication Columbus Alive, Nelson was still navigating her newfound fame. Almost a year later, her popularity has grown exponentially, as has her acumen as a content creator and businesswoman. (For context: When we spoke in early 2021, Nelson had more than 484,000 TikTok followers. Today she has 3.3 million.) But Nelson still seems slightly bemused that all this is happening to her just because she showed people how to identify and cook edible plants they can find in their backyard.

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“My partner isn't surprised by it anymore, but I am every single time,” Nelson says of her run-ins with fans. “I'll be like, ‘They looked at me weird. Do I look weird?’ And my partner's always like, ‘No, they just know who you are.’ And I'm like, ‘No, there’s absolutely no way!’ And then they'll come and ask for a selfie.”

Of course, with great fame comes great burnout. After a nonstop 2021, Nelson is more focused on making her new life fit her rather than the other way around. In September, she left her job at BARK to focus on content creation full time. But she’s still figuring out that life-work balance. “No is a word that I literally have to learn for 2022, or I am going to die,” she says.

I talked to Nelson about her big year, which included a TV commercial, writeups in The New York Times and Bon Appétit, segments on The Kelly Clarkson Show and The Drew Barrymore Show and a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30. We also discussed her freshly announced cookbook, which will be published by Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2023.

When did you feel comfortable enough to leave BARK and go out on your own?

If we're being perfectly honest, I wasn't comfortable when I made the decision. I just felt like I was tearing my brain in two trying to be the absolute best that I can be making a company's content for eight hours a day, and then having to go and try and make the best content I could make for myself for, like, eight hours a day. I wasn't sleeping enough. I wasn't seeing friends and family because it'd be like, get up in the morning, sprint around the neighborhood, see if I find anything worth harvesting and making a video about, rush back in time for my morning meeting. Be in meetings all day. Create some content. Post whatever was due to post that day. Then immediately run to a park or run to the forest, and then try and shoot another piece of content. I just felt like I was sprinting for six straight months, and I was starting to hit a wall. I was just getting exhausted all the time, grumps all the time—which is very not me. I just thought, if I didn't take a chance on myself—stupid kid's movie time—I would regret it for the rest of my life, or at least that was my fear.

I have to ask you about being in a video with Martha freaking Stewart.

Oh my god. Well, here's the tea of teas: I didn't get to meet her. My friend Tyler did.

When did this happen?

I would say sometime in August. TikTok sent me an email and was just like, “Hey crazy plant lady!” They didn't say that. They're always so so nice to me. They were like, “Do you want to be in a small commercial that we're putting together with this production company? [We'll] fly you to Los Angeles.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure. That sounds like fun.” Getting to go to LA and getting to be in a little commercial and making a little bit of money from it. I was like, “Sure, why not?” What they did not mention is that this commercial was going to be inescapable. My mom was like, “I cannot watch network television without seeing your face.” I get a text message at least once a day from a family member or a friend being like, “Was that Alexis in a commercial?” But it was a lot of fun. I got my own trailer for the first time. I was like, “For me? Why?”

When did things really start to kick into high gear?

So for Black History Month, TikTok put me on their list of Black creators to watch. For Women's History Month, I did a livestream on the first day of March. I would say the combo of those two things. Because I'd just been, like, hanging out with my couple hundred thousand followers, feeling real good about myself, having a grand old time. And then because of those two things, suddenly by the middle of spring, I had like a million followers on TikTok. That's when things really start picking up and your phone really never stops making noise until you turn all of your notifications off. And it just kept going. I hit this crazy stride of posting at least five videos a week, every single week for six straight months. It honestly feels like I woke up from a fog one day at the end of all that and looked at my phone, and then there were 3 million people there.

There were a few times on Facebook when you posted something along the lines of, I've got a lot going on right now. If you don't need me to do something right now, don't ask me yet. How did you get comfortable saying to people, I need a minute?

It's a growing process. Some days I'm really confident in my, "Hey, I cannot possibly do that right now, but I so appreciate you asking."  Some days I'm like, "But what if they hate me if I say no?" It really is just a practice constantly. At that point when I made that status, I remember that day. My mom was a little frustrated with me for not answering her calls for a couple of days. I was looking at my Google calendar, and I had at least one thing outside of work stuff, like at least one foraging or content-related thing, every single day for two weeks, be that an interview or a class or a livestream for my Patreon followers. It was starting to make me very unhappy about everything. It was really scary to make that status because I definitely feared that I would miss out on some grand opportunity. There are a lot of one-off things I said yes to over the past year … that ended up being wonderful opportunities when everything was said and done. So you're always afraid of missing those. If you are not sane for them, it doesn't even matter.

So, book deal. Tell me all about this. Is it going to be a cookbook?

It is going to be a cookbook. So for the first one—

First one?

I hope I get to write another book, only because I want to write a book about seaweed. Someone please. Calling out into the void: Someone please give me a book deal to write a book about seaweed and seaweed recipes, so I can just spend a year of my life  in a little skiff in the ocean. I'd love that.

But it's a cookbook. It is cooking with the seasons. It focuses very heavily on invasive or weedy plants. It's easy to find them everywhere, so you won't have people feeling left out because they're maybe in a region that doesn't get paw paws or doesn't get American persimmons. [It] walks people through some of the madness in my kitchen. It's been the hardest thing in the world in that I'm awful at measuring things when I cook. I don't even like following measurements from other people's recipes. I'm just like, I know how flour works. [Laughs.] I'm gonna change this, and it should be fine. And it usually is. So that's been crazy and fun.

Do you know when it's gonna come out?

[Sings.] No clue. If I'm lucky and very diligent, the manuscript will be done around this time next year, just because it's gonna take a year of foraging.

How are you mentally preparing for all that?

I'm just going to have to be very disciplined, which is hard for me. That being said, it took a certain degree of discipline to make five videos a week, every week for six months. So just trying to direct that same energy toward writing is really the name of the game. Trying to write at least a little bit every single day, even if it's just a couple sentences, even if I go back and change everything about it the next day. As for how I'm dealing with it mentally, not well. [Laughs.] I've never done anything like this before, and I'm just as curious as everyone else to see how it comes out.

My only friend who has read any of the manuscript so far, his biggest critique is that I made too many jokes about acorns wearing tiny hats. And honestly, I feel like if that doesn't mean it's written in my voice, I don't know what does.