F&W Game Changers: Alexis Nikole Nelson
Alexis Nikole Nelson didn't set out to become a social media star; she just wanted to try out TikTok. During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, "I had time on my hands, showing off things I was doing in my own life," she said. She started making videos with plants that could be foraged in urban settings — a way to offset the need to go to the grocery store during quarantine. From her first foraging post, a 38-second video where Nelson featured violet flower syrup, Nelson was a hit. Today she has 3.7 million followers on TikTok, where she is known as Black Forager. More importantly to Nelson, she is changing the face of the foraging community.
In her TikTok videos, Nelson draws on her background in environmental science and theater, often bursting into song about avoiding poison hemlock or how to make lilac-infused honey. Personal safety with an air of frivolity and practicality is the theme throughout Nelson's content, and her appeal is as clear and compelling as her mulberry and mugwort-leaf teas.
Yet there's another motif underlying Nelson's work. She does not shy away from the historical, racial, and cultural factors that have shaped the ways Americans consume food. She'll talk, for example, about how Jim Crow era property restrictions and strict trespassing laws passed in the late 1800s greatly diminished Black Americans' and newly emancipated individuals' ability to gather food. Sometimes her teaching is as subtle as giving the binomial nomenclature of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Sometimes it's as blunt as calling out white fragility. For many, she has been a transformative figure. "It feels overwhelming in a good way," Nelson said. "People have told me that they felt empowered by watching me."
Nelson's passion for foraging began when she was 5, when her parents started teaching her about plants and their uses. In middle school, friends would chide Nelson about her love for the outdoors, commenting "that's for white people." But Nelson kept at it, becoming a counselor at a teen survival camp program. "It took a long time to realize that outdoor recreationists didn't look like me," she said.
All of Nelson's work, from her video tutorial on how to make dandelion flower fritters to her recent cookbook deal with Simon & Schuster, serves her ultimate goal of making the practice of foraging a bigger tent under which all people may gather and feel welcome. "I want it to feel unnecessary and redundant to have to add 'Black' [in front of forager] because [the industry] is so saturated with Black folks."