Code Switch: Meet Alexis Nikole Nelson, The Wildly Popular 'Black Forager'
The recipe for a wildly successful TikTok account — at least, for Alexis Nikole Nelson — is to post entirely about foraging.
Known on social media as "Black Forager", Nelson has drawn in more than 2 million followers. For those not familiar with the term, Nelson says foraging is essentially "a very fun way to say, I eat plants that do not belong to me and I teach other people how to do the same thing." The videos she posts showcase her collecting and cooking everything from acorns to yellow dandelions to dead man's fingers (AKA the seaweed codium fragile.)
But for Nelson, foraging goes beyond rummaging around in other peoples' shrubbery. It's a way to connect with African American and indigenous food traditions that many people were discouraged — or actively prevented — from accessing.
Our play cousins at TED Radio Hour spoke to Nelson about foraging, followers, and finding cultural (and literal) roots. Their conversation, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Zomorodi: So when you forage, Alexis, you walk into your backyard or into a forest. What do you see that most of us don't? It's like a supermarket, basically, for you?
Nelson: It's like Disney World, but full of plants and much cheaper food. You walk in and you see this very vibrant ecosystem that we are a part of. And there's something so fulfilling about it, right? You're just like, I pulled this out of the ground, and now it's sustaining me! So I look into natural spaces and I just see wonder.
Do you remember the first time you went foraging as a kid?
I remember gardening with my mother at the house I grew up in. One day stands out in my mind when I was probably not helping at all. And my mom pointed out some grass in our yard that looked different than all of the other grass, which, until she pointed it out to me, I had never noticed. So my mom tells me to go and break some for her. I break it and suddenly, the air is perfumed with garlic. And she's like, "That is onion grass. You know how we sometimes cook with green onions? You can cook with that too." And warning, if you tell a five-year-old that, they will just start breaking plants in your yard and seeing if magical smells emanate from them.
And probably eating them! So your mom was very into plants, clearly. Did you get your love of food and gardening and the outdoors from your parents, do you think?
Absolutely. On my dad's side of the family, his mom is also of an indigenous ancestry — Iroquois ancestry — so as a kid, he was being exposed to foodways that some of his peers weren't necessarily. And my dad is excellent in the kitchen. It was really this kind of coming together of the two things — cooking and gardening — that I enjoyed doing with my parents most as a kid. And I'm very lucky to be a Black kid who grew up with two Black parents who were also very outdoorsy, because not all of us get that. There's been this cultural separation between a lot of Black folks and the outdoors.
But historically there wasn't that same separation, right? And you've been studying just what happened. Can you explain?
So back when a lot of Black folks were still enslaved, there was a whole lot of knowledge trading between Black folks and Indigenous folks in a lot of the southern states — and a lot of midwestern and northern states, too, actually. And for a lot of people who were enslaved, the way that you beefed up the meager meals or the scraps that you were given was often by supplementing with foraging, with trapping, with fishing. So that knowledge that was a huge part of early Black culture here in the Americas.
After Black people were emancipated, suddenly laws were put in place very rapidly about only being able to reap the benefits of land that you owned. And if you are newly freed, odds are you do not own land. So if you can't hunt and forage on public property, and you don't yet have private property to your name, boom, that is a part of your life that you are not partaking in anymore. And it doesn't take a whole lot of generations passing for that knowledge to just fall away completely.
And is it true, then, that when there was an opportunity to go foraging once again, some people thought, 'Well, I don't have the handed down knowledge, and anyway, only poor people would do that'?
Yeah, you have this really weird thing happen in the 20th century where everyone is, like, wanting to show off wealth. So foraging kind of became taboo even if you did have the knowledge to do it — and that was regardless of race. Foraging very much got looked down upon because the thinking was, why would you be heading down to the creek to gather pawpaws when you can go to the grocery store and get a banana?
And in the 1950s and 1960s, being a Black person out in nature, out in the woods, out in predominantly white spaces was a very scary thing to do. For the sake of your safety, that's not a space that you would want to necessarily be in. So it was kind of like a three-combo punch to us culturally moving away from getting to know our natural spaces. And I am one of myriad people who is actively trying to combat that.
Do you feel like it's working? Like, what kind of feedback do you get from your followers?
One of the best days I think I've ever had in my life, I was out foraging and a girl who also happens to be Black — probably a teenager — she runs up to me and she's like, "You are that girl from Tik Tok!" And I was like, "Oh, my god yes!" And she was so excited. So I got to take her and show her what I was there harvesting. I got to give her and her mom a cut-leaved toothwort leaf so they could taste the spicy brassica-y-ness from it.
And the way that her and her friends and her mom's face lit up, I went home and I cried. I cried for like a solid 20 minutes because that's — oh my gosh it's, like, almost overwhelming. And the thing that stuck with me was she was just like, "You're doing this for the culture." Man, I'm starting to tear up just thinking about it now.
In some ways, through foraging, you are helping people reconnect with their own history and the ways people used to eat off the land, in a seasonal, sustainable way.
Yeah. So many of us have such a fraught relationship with food. A lot of that is due in part to societal pressures. A lot of that is due to how processed food is. And I personally have had a historically very fraught relationship with food. I grew up very overweight, and I was always being pressured to eat less, cook less. I, full disclosure, dealt with an eating disorder in my early and my mid-20s in which food was very much the enemy — in which I trained myself to stop thinking about this subject that I had loved thinking about and dreaming about my entire childhood.
In a way, diving back into foraging was the way that I fell back in love with food. It was not on purpose. I was super poor after college, living in a house with five of my friends and wanting to eat things other than ramen and canned vegetables. And so I was like, well, you know, let me turn to some of that weird knowledge that I had been amassing for no reason as a kid. And it just brought me this joy and this connection to place that I didn't have at that point in time. So much so that I went out and I sought out more information, and I got more bold with my cooking and started being willing to put flour and bread into my food again. And I was willing to make sweet things again. There's something soul-nourishing about caring about how you're nourishing your body.
To hear more of Manoush's conversation with Alexis, visit ted.npr.org.
Please Note: If done incorrectly, foraging can pose serious risks. Those who choose to pursue foraging should conduct thorough research from multiple credible sources, consult experts, and exercise caution.
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