TikTok Megastar Alexis Nikole Nelson Learns to Balance Foraging Fame With Life Off-Screen
With a James Beard Award in hand, a TED talk under her belt and a book deal with a 2024 release date, the Black Forager is spreading her gospel of wild food beyond social media.
Alexis Nikole Nelson digs in the dirt.
She’s searching for Atlantic camas, also known as wild hyacinth, at Jeffrey Park in Bexley. The perennial herb has grasslike leaves and pale purple flowers. But Nelson digs for the plant’s bulbs. (She has a trowel, but since she doesn’t need to go very deep, she’s using her hands.) She describes the herb as similar to a potato but better. Whenever she finds a bulb, she excitedly holds it up. Most are too small to eat, so she tucks them back into the earth. She’ll come back in the spring to harvest them.
Nelson started watching this patch of Atlantic camas two years ago, before she became a TikTok celebrity. And while much has changed for the social media star since then—a book deal, a James Beard award, 4 million followers on TikTok—this part (spending hours outside foraging for wild food in Central Ohio) looks very much the same for Nelson. Although now she is recognized more often. During another outing at Jeffrey Park, she says a couple of teenage boys on the other side of Alum Creek yelled, “Are you that plant lady?”
Nelson is in the unique position of being the face of foraging for many people, especially for the younger generation that found her via TikTok. And now her fame has spread beyond social media, with articles about her in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Food & Wine and other national publications, plus appearances on The Kelly Clarkson Show, The Drew Barrymore Show and even a cameo in a TikTok commercial (with other TikTok stars) that also featured Martha Stewart. Today, one does not think of foraging without thinking of Alexis Nikole Nelson.
It’s a statement that Nelson has mixed feelings about. “I simultaneously think it is so cool that this activity that I love, that only conjured images of Bear Grylls and Euell Gibbons for so many decades, now, for so many people, does conjure me and my crazy bright clothes and my big curly hair running through the woods in my platform Crocs. I think that’s amazing,” she says. “But I also get wary because I’m like, ‘Don’t let me be the only person of color in this space that you are following.’ If I see that a person’s following me, and then every other outdoorsy person that they follow is white, I’m just like, ‘Hmm.’ Now I suddenly feel like I’ve been put on a weird pedestal.”
She continues, “Despite the fact that a lot of the national press that I’ve gotten has talked about so many different aspects of my story and the educational content that I create, a lot of times [I] look at those articles, and I’m like, ‘Wow, the newsworthiness of this literally boils down to “Black woman goes outside, has good time in front of internet; people amazed.”’”
As Nelson prepares to publish her first book in early 2024—a feat that will give her an even larger audience—she’s learning how to navigate her still-newish fame, all while trying to maintain some degree of personhood as she works to feed the never-ending content machine known as the internet.
“It’s very weird when you feel like you’re just out in the woods by yourself, and you’re just filming a video for funnsies, and then suddenly, thousands of people are letting you know how they feel about it,” Nelson says during another chat, this time at her Franklinton home. “For better or for worse. It’s really cool, but it’s very overwhelming.”
In June, Nelson took home a James Beard Media Award for best social media account. At the August ceremony in Chicago, Nelson, dressed in a shiny, off-the-shoulder red gown with matching flowers in her hair, rubbed elbows with some of the culinary world’s best talents. (Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef presented Nelson with the award.) “This was on my vision board for like five years from now,” Nelson said during her speech. The crowd laughed and clapped.
Winning a James Beard Award was a turning point for Nelson. After making a name for herself in the social media world (@alexisnikole on TikTok and @blackforager on Instagram), she’s now crossing over to the culinary sphere with her forthcoming cookbook, a guide to preparing and eating wild foods throughout the seasons, which will be released in early 2024 through Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Nelson was encouraged to apply for the Beard award by her friend Helen Rosner, a food writer for The New Yorker, who wrote about Nelson in June 2021. Once the nominations came out, though, things got “much realer” for Nelson. “I was just like, ‘Do I do enough for the world, either digital or [in real life] to justify getting this award?’” she says. “I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I think it’s absolutely crazy that I won. I’m happy about it. I don’t want them to take my award away, but I’m also like, ‘Are you sure? I will hand it back if I need to, but I don’t want to.’”
For someone who laughs when I ask if she now considers herself a chef, this transition into the culinary space is a surreal one for Nelson. Her usual cheerful and boisterous voice becomes slightly subdued when she considers this. “It’s honestly a little bit intimidating. I feel like while I was [at the awards ceremony] and looking at everybody else who was winning or who had won in the past, I was like, ‘Oh my god. They have so many more years under their belt than I do,’” she recalls.
“I have worked in food service, but I’ve never been a chef or anyone’s sous chef, not at a nice restaurant, not even at a mediocre restaurant. I’ve worked at Blaze Pizza, and I worked making food at the [rec center] for hungry OSU students after they were done lifting their weights before they headed to class,” Nelson says. “In terms of professional food, up until my page, that’s all I had done. It was just that, and then cooking with my family growing up, which I never felt justified me being in those spaces, even if I wanted to be there.”
The cooking she did with her family is what led Nelson to where she is today. By now, the story of how her mom introduced her to onion grass as a child, thereby sparking her interest in foraging, has been told many times, so much so that Nelson’s mom asked her to stop telling the story because now everyone asks her mom to identify plants for them. Foraging became a bigger part of her life after graduating from Ohio State, when she was a broke 20-something trying to supplement her vegan diet. And then in 2020, in the throes of the pandemic, she filmed a video about plants people could forage in their backyards, and it struck a nerve with a public that was scared to leave their houses.
“The images that come to mind when people even use the word ‘wild’ are very scary for some,” says Nelson’s friend Linda Black Elk, an Indigenous ethnobotanist and the food sovereignty coordinator at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. “And to show that we’re just regular, everyday people with families and kids and partners, and we’re feeding this to our kids and our families … I think it makes people feel more comfortable and it helps them to start to realize that this is a really viable way of eating.”
But what keeps people coming back to Nelson’s TikTok is, well, Nelson. Clad in colorful outfits (the day we meet at her house she’s wearing a pink gingham dress, a flower crown and hot pink Crocs), Nelson gallivants around Columbus, introducing viewers to wild plants, sharing recipes, singing about her love for acorns and seaweed, and cracking jokes constantly. “Happy snacking! Don’t die!” she says at the end of each video. (If Nelson ever makes merch, expect to see this phrase emblazoned on a T-shirt.)
Much of this is just how Nelson is, but it’s also a persona she’s crafted, both as a theater major at Ohio State and as a local stand-up comedian. “TikTok being the thing that made her famous was really surprising to me, because I thought she was gonna be famous as a stand-up,” says Nelson’s partner, Geoff Parker, about her rise to fame. “But I never doubted that she was gonna end up in show business in some way, shape or form. … It was neat that something she clearly enjoyed so much could become a career for her.”
With her cookbook, Nelson plans to distill the lovable, chaotic energy of her videos into approachable recipes people can use, whether they’ve been foraging for years or are new to it. Anyone who watches Nelson’s videos will know her aversion to measuring things, so just having her recipes on paper for others to reference is a big deal.
She’s aiming for 80 to 90 recipes and wants to give people multiple seasonal uses for each wild food. For someone who’s created several new videos every week for two-plus years, Nelson says writing the book has been “a really good exercise in doing the same thing over and over again.”
“I’ve had to get comfortable with repetition, because that’s the only way that you can test your recipes and whittle in on the exact way that you want it to be, in a way that other people can replicate,” she says. “That was kind of driving me crazy for the first month or so. And now it’s kind of nice.”
The biggest struggle for Nelson is finding the time to write. When I interviewed her for Columbus Monthly at the end of 2021, she said, “‘No’ is a word I’m gonna have to learn for 2022.” When I ask her how her mission to say “no” is going, she says, “I’ve been more successful than I expected, but I could be better still.” These moments when Nelson becomes contemplative and quieter, when she lets down her guard and shares her worries and self-doubt, are a marked turn from her social media persona. Because as alike as the two versions of Alexis are—the Alexis you see on TikTok and the Alexis standing in front of me in her kitchen making cow parsnip flatbread—they are not the same person.
She is a person who, even with millions of fans, still beats herself up when someone posts a negative comment. She’s someone who simultaneously feels great when she makes good progress on her book and feels guilty about the 40 unread emails waiting for her after she’s done writing. In her 20s, she dealt with an eating disorder, family issues, a toxic relationship and a string of unsatisfactory jobs.
“She very much is the person you see in those videos. It’s just, that is her dialed to 11 or compressed with quick cuts into a minute,” Parker says. “And she does definitely have down days, as well, that you don’t really get to see very often, although you do occasionally. And I think people do appreciate that sometimes.”
Nelson is a 30-year-old with a not-insignificant amount of fame. And like many, she’s still figuring out the rest. “It’s weird, and it’s interesting being in the business of doing the things that you love, but also being in the business of staying relevant so you can keep doing the things you love,” she says. “I think that’s the part of all of this that I dislike the most, having to think about that day in and day out.”
It’s April 2022, and Nelson stands onstage at a TED conference in Vancouver, wearing a sunshine yellow dress while preparing seaweed snacks for the audience. Nelson opens her talk with a joke. “If a vegan falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear them say, ‘I’m vegan!’ are they even really vegan?” The crowd—which includes Bill Gates—claps and laughs. By the end of her 12-and-a-half-minute talk, the audience is on its feet for Nelson. The video of her TED talk has more than 1.3 million views. During her speech, Nelson refers to herself as a “reluctant social media star,” but watching her makes it abundantly clear: She is a star.
In her TED talk, Nelson uses foraging and veganism as a way to examine our current food systems. She has a gift for discussing important and sometimes controversial topics in a way that is palatable to more people. The colorful wardrobe, the jokes and the songs are all there, but when it’s time to deliver a message, Nelson does not waver. “The way we’re eating is not sustainable,” she says during her talk.
“I hid it in humor, like I try to do with most things, and I found that that always makes the pill go down easier,” Nelson says of her Vancouver speech. “It was a little scary, though. ... I was ready when they posted it. They were like, ‘We’re gonna post it on your 30th birthday.’ I was like, ‘Sick, so if people get mad at me, it gets to happen on my 30th birthday. Awesome.’ But no one got mad at me.”
Plenty of people have gotten mad at Nelson before, like the time she said the best thing people can do for the environment isn’t to go vegan but to eat local. Or the time she encouraged people to practice the “honorable harvest,” an unofficial set of guidelines outlined by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which encourages people to be mindful and respectful of the resources they take from nature. (In terms of foraging, this can mean not harvesting all of one plant or fungi, and not taking the first one you see.) Or pretty much any time she acknowledges the existence of racism.
Nelson has never been one to shy away from discussing the historical and cultural significance of foraging, specifically among Black and Indigenous groups. She is adamant in her mission to educate people on the many different factors that influence the food we consume. “None of our food … exists without context,” she says in a TikTok from September 2021.
Nelson says she’s getting better at letting the negative comments go, but they still bother her. As a Black woman in what is often viewed as a predominantly white space—both the outdoors as a whole, as well as foraging—she says sometimes those negative comments feel worse because of how she looks.
“I really think some of the negative comments that I received were worded the way that they were and were so negative because I am a Black woman,” she says. “I think it’s really easy when a person of color says something you don’t agree with to—instead of having an issue with the thing [the person is] talking about—immediately take issue with them. I think a lot of times, people are very quick to call a woman of color, especially a Black woman, a b---- or say that she’s angry—even when you have a smile on your face—if you’re saying something that they don’t agree with.”
Like Nelson, Black Elk discusses foraging on her various social media channels and has faced similar criticisms in the comment sections of her videos. “I get the same comments on a lot of mine, like, ‘Hey, why do you have to politicize this?’ It is political. What we eat is very much political. Everyone talks about decolonization, but no one is talking about decolonizing our palates,” she says. “The reason we eat the way we do is because of colonization, because of genocide. … You can look throughout history and see that human beings are controlled by what they consume.”
Much of the feedback Nelson receives is positive, and despite the naysayers, she shows no signs of quieting down. Reluctant social media star or not, Nelson is aware of the influence she has, and she does not take it lightly. Nelson grew up loving the outdoors and spent many summers, both as a camper and later as a counselor, at YMCA Camp Campbell Gard in Southeast Ohio. During her first summer at camp, she says she was hyper-aware that she was the only Black person there. Not the only Black camper, but the only Black person. She was 7 years old.
“I like to think that the outdoors are starting to become a more welcoming space,” she says. “I’m seeing some of the big outdoor brands—your Patagonia, your North Face—being more deliberately diverse in who they’re putting into their advertisements and who they’re showing in their product shots in stores like REI. And I do think that’s where it starts. It’s just feeling like you see yourself in those activities.”
For many people, Nelson is that someone. As we wrap up our visit to Jeffrey Park, she recounts a previous visit to the park when she met two young Black girls. The teens knew who Nelson was and were thrilled to meet her. There’s emotion in Nelson’s voice as she recounts the meeting.
Afterward, she went home and cried, because it made her so happy.
This story is from the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.