Forager Alexis Nikole Nelson Wants You to Go Outside
The Columbus resident is using social media to spread the gospel of wild food—and it’s working.
Alexis Nikole Nelson is fond of saying she’s been eating food off the ground since she was a kid. While it sounds like a funny “kids do the darndest things” moment, it’s true in Nelson’s case. And she remembers her first experience with wild food clearly.
She was 5 years old, running around her mom’s garden in Cincinnati with her “tiny trowel, digging in the dirt,” when her mom introduced her to onion grass. The grass, which grows in tall, thin tubes, is considered an invasive weed—and also an edible one. It has a distinct onion smell and is similar in look and taste to chives.
“For some reason, that stuck,” Nelson says of her first lesson in foraging 101. “None of the other really cool organized gardening things really stuck. I was like, ‘No, I want to find more of these accident[ally] tasty plants.’”
Nelson’s family has a long history with agriculture. Her maternal grandmother worked in a cranberry bog as a kid in Massachusetts. Her mother’s paternal family immigrated to the United States in the 1600s from Cape Verde, a small set of islands off the west coast of Africa.
“They were farmers from the get-go—land-owning farmers in Massachusetts, as people of color, 300, 400 years ago,” Nelson says. “We have this very strong connection to pulling things out of the earth on both sides of the family.”
Foraging became a larger part of Nelson’s life out of necessity. After graduating from Ohio State in 2015, Nelson was “super broke.” She quickly realized if she wanted to incorporate anything leafy and green into her diet, it was going to be food she found for free. So, she did her homework and began using the app Falling Fruit, which allows people to mark and share fruit-bearing trees in their neighborhoods. She got creative with the edible plants she already knew about and found new ways to use them. She researched foraging laws and pollution’s effect on wild food.
“That somehow has snowballed and spiraled into seaweed panna cotta,” Nelson says.
Things really began to snowball for Nelson when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ohio last March. At that time, her foraging Instagram account (@blackforager) was less than a year old and had about 800 followers. In January 2020, she started a TikTok account. She did all the usual TikTok trends—dances, funny voiceovers. Then the shutdown happened and something as routine as going to the grocery store became a much bigger deal. So, Nelson made a video about edible plants you could forage in your neighborhood. “I posted it, and I didn’t think anything of it,” Nelson says. “I opened the app the next day and it had like 40,000 views.”
The appeal of Nelson’s videos is as easy to spot as onion grass. For one, she’s really funny. The “occasional professional comedian” loves reminding people that she’s a “filthy vegan.” She is known to burst into song in many of her videos, whether she’s writing an ode to the much-maligned cattail, showing you how to make pine needle cookies or asking you very nicely to stop pulling ramps up by their roots, which she does in a rap that would make Lin-Manuel Miranda proud.
Nelson’s TikTok isn’t all song and dance—although there is plenty of both. She also uses the platform to educate people about the intersection of race and foraging. In a February video, Nelson discussed foraging’s long history among Black people, Native Americans and poor rural populations. Those groups are also the ones who are most often hurt by anti-foraging laws.
“The history of early American anti-foraging laws reveals that supporters of restricting foraging rights typically grounded their efforts in racism, classism, colonialism, imperialism, or some combination of these odious practices and beliefs,” food lawyer Baylen J. Linnekin wrote in a 2018 paper from the Fordham Urban Law Journal.
Linnekin goes on to note that after the Civil War, Southern states enacted criminal trespassing laws that “sought to prohibit the freed slaves from continuing their subsistence foraging practices as a tool to chain freed men to plantation work.”
He sums up the current state of foraging in the U.S. with this: “Anti-foraging laws trace their origins to contempt for the rights of those deemed by those in power to be ‘other’: Native Americans, African Americans and rural white farmers. Modern foraging regulations, intentionally or not, are built upon this foundation.”
Because it’s the internet, Nelson isn’t a stranger to a question that plagues many Black creators: Why do you have to bring race into [insert whatever the creator is known for]? As a Black woman, there’s no way for Nelson to separate the two. They are on display as soon as she walks out her front door.
Although foraging has deep roots in the Black community, when Nelson started sharing her adventures on social media, she didn’t see foragers that looked like her. She recalls discovering @eric.ofthewoods on Instagram, a Korean forager in Indianapolis, and being so excited to see another nonwhite forager.
“It’s a very white space,” Nelson says about foraging, the legality of which varies greatly, depending where you are. (Nelson encourages her followers to check local laws before foraging, and when in doubt, ask.) “There’s a trendiness that comes with these types of, maybe a little bit illegal actions, or maybe a little bit dangerous actions, when they become associated with whiteness. It’s become commodified in a way that makes me a little bit sad and uncomfortable.”
For Nelson, foraging is an act of resistance. She is reclaiming an activity that was taken from her ancestors. Not only that, she is taking up space. The history of laws, barriers and violence that kept Black people from enjoying the outdoors—from swimming pools to national parks—still has ripples today. To Nelson, this part is even more important than the foraging aspect. She knows foraging isn’t for everyone. But everyone deserves to feel comfortable and welcome in outdoor spaces.
“That’s an aspect of wellness that a lot of Black communities are left out of,” Nelson says, referring to the benefits of spending time outside. “Anything that I can do to speak to why that’s not OK and how we can slowly start shifting this cultural identity that organizes us separately from folks who spend a lot of time outside is a dream.”
A version of this story was originally published on ColumbusAlive.com.
Alexis Nikole Nelson’s Foraging Favorites by Season
“In the springtime my favorite is dame’s rocket. The flowers smell super sweet, even though the leaves and the shoots are that peppery arugula kind of taste. It tends to be up and doing its thing around my birthday, so I love it for that, too. And the flowers are beautiful.”
“In the wintertime, I would say my favorite thing to forage is field garlic, just because it persists so well through the winter. It’s not only delicious, but it’s a really nice reminder that things are still alive.”
“Summertime, I’m usually up in Massachusetts with my family, so my favorite thing to forage is pretty much any seaweed. If I had to choose an Ohio thing that I love foraging during the summer, it’s wild bergamot. It’s one of our native wildflowers, and it really thrives in our region. It’s like an oregano with more depth.”
“In the fall it’s definitely pawpaws. Just the thrill of finding them is so exciting. It’s like a tropical fruit ended up here by accident.”