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‘The Black Forager’ Alexis Nikole Nelson shares her passion for wild, edible plants while fostering a connection with the outdoors

Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known as “The Black Forager,” shares her knowledge and passion for wild, edible plants with millions of followers on social media. The James Beard Media Award winner will speak about foraging at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.
Alexis Nikole Nelson
Courtesy photo
Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known as “The Black Forager,” shares her knowledge and passion for wild, edible plants with millions of followers on social media. The James Beard Media Award winner will speak about foraging at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.

Alexis Nikole Nelson — also known as “The Black Forager”online — will speak about her passion for wild, edible plants in Aspen on Tuesday. Her talk, organized by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, will begin at 6 p.m. at the Paepcke Auditorium.

She’s a James Beard Media Award winner, now working on her first cookbook. Her online videos, filled with humor and a depth of knowledge, share tips with millions of followers on everything from plant identification to recipes for wild edibles.

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke with Nelson in advance of the event in Aspen. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kaya Williams: Let's start at the very beginning. I'd love for you to tell me how you got into foraging, your origin story.

Alexis Nicole Nelson: I really got into foraging thanks to my mom. She is an avid gardener, and just has an amazing green thumb. And when I grew up, I just felt like she knew every single plant in the world. She would always quiz me on different plants growing in our yard and our neighbor's yards, and my favorites were always the edible plants. The medicinal plants were really fun, too. The poisonous plants, you know, interesting to know, but I was always drawn to the plants that you could use in cooking.

And when she first introduced me to field garlic, which was my first wild edible, I was almost aghast that there was something that delicious growing in our yard, and it wasn't on purpose. And I was like, well, if this guy’s here, how many more are like him growing everywhere? And I feel like I've just kind of been on a quest to find that out ever since.

Williams: You are best known for your social media presence on Tiktok, on Instagram. What led you to say, you know, ‘I have all of this knowledge, I've learned all of this stuff from my mom, I want to share it with millions of people now’?

Nelson: I never anticipated sharing it with anyone other than me and maybe some of my curious friends. I started the Black Forager handle back in 2018 as a way to keep track of the recipes I made that I enjoyed the most, and a place to put all of my writings about them, (in a place) where it would not annoy my family members.

I had been out of college for a little bit, (and) was, like, pretty broke. So the way that I was sprucing up meals, and making them exciting and vibrant and, honestly, more healthy, was with the wild plants that I was foraging in and around Columbus, Ohio. And I loved following other people's foraging blogs, but I didn't see anyone who looked like me.

So when I was choosing the handle, I was discussing it with my then boss, who was also quite the social media maven, in her own right. And I said, you know, I feel like I'm going to name it something like “Black Forager.”

I don't see any other Black folks online doing these things, and I just wanted people to know, even if they were just looking at a beautiful plate of food and my words, that this was coming from a Black woman — from, you know, a person of color, that we also inhabit these same food spaces and these same natural spaces.

I didn't want there to be any if, ands or buts about it.

For a while, I just had a couple hundred followers. I knew pretty much all of them. It was a lot of other foragers, and we would just kind of wheel and deal and trade ideas and recipes and all talk to each other. And then I started making vertical videos, and just kind of started throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. And wildly enough, what stuck was what I was most passionate about.

Williams: You mentioned that you didn't see a lot of other people online who looked like you foraging. You've also written and spoken in the past about kind of the disconnect in the modern day between Black folks and the outdoors, and I'm curious what role you think that foraging, and especially educating other people about foraging, could play in restoring those connections and fostering those connections.

Nelson: Well, I feel like here in the United States, for a lot of good reasons, there's a very storied history of African Americans and the outdoors.

At one point, when some of our ancestors — some of my own ancestors — were enslaved, foraging was a saving grace. It was information that thankfully was passed on to them by Indigenous groups inhabiting some of those same spaces.

And it was what kept them alive on a plantation where the only food you were usually being given was cornmeal and fatback. And those two things alone do not a robust diet make, especially not for someone who's having to do so much physical labor, day in and day out.

So not only was it encouraged, it was expected that members of the community within groups of enslaved Black people would learn what was in season and when, how to harvest it safely, how to prepare it safely, how to hunt, how to trap, how to fish. Because it was necessary for survival.

Unfortunately, one of the first big cracks in the relationship between Black folks and the land here in the United States occurred just after emancipation, when a lot of white landowners suddenly realized it was very hard to find Black folks to employ on their plantations because they knew how to take care of themselves. There are like journal entries you can find — out of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina — of folks quite literally saying, like, "these folks know how to take care of themselves too well, and so no one wants to come back here and work, especially not for what I'm willing to pay them."

And that was kind of our first foray in the United States with no trespassing laws, with both the signage, with it becoming a criminal offense. Suddenly, places where people learned these life-saving skills were cut off to them, and most of them were not landowners, so they did not have a place to be able to utilize those skills. These plantation owners said, "Well, if you're not going to be working here, you're not going to be getting food here either," and very much strong-armed people back into the jobs that a lot of them have just escaped.

Not only that, but with the rise of a lot of sundown towns in that area, many of which are more rural than suburban or urban, it became very unsafe to be a Black person going hiking, to be a Black person out in the country, to gather poke(weed) to make poke salad or to go and gather wild strawberries.

(And) with the Great Migration, a lot of folks (moved) further north, where there were jobs that offered more pay and seemed much more stable in the, kind of, industrial north. And it doesn't take more than a generation to lose skills. Doesn't take more than a generation to lose language.

So, with the arrival of the 20th century, you see a lot of Black people losing that connection to place through wild spaces. Of course, there are still some folks who kept a lot of those traditions alive. You know, I remember hearing about poke salad from my paternal grandparents growing up. It's another one of the first wild foods that I remember hearing about. But you know, nothing like what some of our ancestors were having to do to survive.

A lot of that knowledge was lost, and I hear that echoed a lot with some of my Indigenous friends, with the forced removal from a lot of their ancestral lands to places where they were not familiar with the space they now were forced to inhabit — where, suddenly, a millennia of stories, of instruction being passed down wasn't applicable anymore, and it really kind of cuts you off at the knees when it comes to your attachment to the spaces that you inhabit.

I think because people love food, especially when the food is good and unique, foraging has become a great way to get people outside, again. One of my best friends will very lovingly tell me, "I hate being outside, for no reason." But now, with foraging, I have seen her outside more than I ever have, and I think that that is true for a lot of people who, after tripping and falling into foraging, also trip and fall into liking birding or hiking or a ton of other outdoor activities.

So it’s really cool to watch this reclamation happen, especially within the Black community. I am known to get very emotional when other Black folks come up to me outside and tell me that I'm one of the reasons that they like being in the wild more often.

Williams: Given that history, does it feel empowering at all to kind of reclaim foraging in the 2020s?

Nelson: Oh, absolutely. It kind of feels a bit like a middle finger to an establishment that did not intend for me to have this knowledge. You know, there are people who very deliberately kept Black folks from being able to take care of themselves this way.

And so, every once in a while, I really get struck and a bit overwhelmed with feeling grateful that I'm in a position where I can participate in foraging and can be out in the woods and the mountains and the ocean and be able to even ascertain this knowledge. It feels really special, and it does feel very empowering. You know, nothing's nothing's better than giving a middle finger to the systems that not only didn't serve you, but tried to undermine you.

Williams: I'm curious as well how the act of foraging has maybe shaped your own relationship with food, (and) how you think about all kinds of things that you're eating day to day?

Nelson: I've talked about it a couple times before, but I don't really like to talk about it much. But I went through a pretty bad bout of an eating disorder for years, and it's wild, even when you feel like you are fully recovered, even when you feel like you're a ways into recovery, how a lot of those little angry thoughts about different foods will stick with you.

You know, it took me years to feel comfortable eating pasta again, and bread — a lot of the things that make food fun. But being able to, say, make a wild bergamot pasta sauce for the pasta, to have something so beautiful, that I also got to play a hand in, then be added to the food that I was honestly a little afraid of, helped me ease back into much more normalized food patterns, consumption patterns.

I really do think that foraging helped save my relationship with food. Another thing that I had gotten really nervous about when my videos started blowing up: I was like, "Oh, here I am, this tall, curvy Black woman." Even now, I don't look like a lot of really popular female food creators in my space. And I used to fear that a lot. But then, to still be accepted with such open arms by my audience was healing in ways that I don't think I'll ever be able to perfectly articulate.

Williams: Where should folks start if they want to get into foraging and maybe find some good ways to identify the plants that they're seeing out in the world?

Nelson: One, get a guidebook as specific to your area as you can. Sometimes that means getting one that's more regional —

“Mountain State Foraging” is an excellent book to use as a jumping off point, but I'm sure that there are even some guides that are Aspen-specific that people could go and find.

There's something really nice about just being able to flip through the pages at whatever speed you want to and just kind of lightly starting to visually introduce yourself to some of these plants and fungi.

But the thing that I think is honestly maybe even better than that to do is to join a local foraging Facebook group, or a local mycology group if fungi is more your speed. And not only do you have the chance to get to meet other like-minded individuals, some of whom would probably love to have you go on a foray or a hike with them, but you also get to start seeing, in real time through other people's posts, what is in season.

Folks have become so disconnected from their food that a lot of people don't realize that there's a hyperspecific season for a lot of things. It would be, you know, someone in October saying, ‘oh, man, I really have a hankering for wild strawberries. Let me just go out and find some, because I know where they are,’ but you're still missing a really key piece of information, which is when they are in season.

And I think a very positive use of social media is those groups on Facebook. That gives you that missing puzzle piece.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.