Alexis Nikole Nelson, TikTok's queen of foraging, explains why food content is 'hollow' without cultural context

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In October 2021, Alexis Nikole Nelson quit her job.

The decision, in retrospect, was a long time coming. As the 29-year-old told In The Know, her friends and family had been encouraging it for months. For them, it was clear she couldn’t balance full-time work with a massively popular TikTok page.

“I think the turning point was just like, ‘Oh man, I really can’t do it all,’” Nelson told In The Know. “Like, ‘One of these things is constantly going to be trying to beat out the other.’”

By that time, Nelson was already arguably the most famous forager on social media. Her videos — which, in her words, involve “screaming into the phone” about botany, fungi and the edible plants hiding in our backyards — had earned her features on NPR, in Fortune and in The New York Times. She now has over 3.3 million TikTok followers, plus another 875,000 on Instagram.

Still, it felt strange for Nelson to turn her love of foraging into a career. Ever since she was a kid learning about the plants in her mom’s garden, botany was always just a hobby — something she did simply because she loved it.

That long-standing passion is apparent in every second of Nelson’s content. Her videos are as energetic as they are educational, ranging from topics like where to find mushrooms that taste like shrimp, how to make “bacon” out of acorns and how you can cook “danger bread” using cow parsnip.

Nelson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and spent countless summers at an outdoors camp, learning about the mushrooms, weeds and berries of her home state. Later, as a student at Ohio State University, she returned to the same camp — this time as a counselor and educator.

In the early days of the pandemic, Nelson decided her knowledge might be helpful to others. She posted a clip about how to “stretch” groceries by foraging and realized, for the first time, that her hobby had a much larger appeal than she’d thought.

“That was the first video that I felt like I put myself into that did really well,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to be foraging anyway … I can make a couple of videos and see what happens.’ And what happened was a lot of people wanting to come along for the ride — which is probably the most surprising to me.”

Practicality is a running theme throughout Nelson’s content. Even done occasionally, foraging can reduce your carbon footprint and grocery bill while also encouraging you to explore new places and try out recipes that might even promote a more nutritious diet.

But to Nelson, this information is “hollow” without context — namely, an interrogation of the historical, racial and cultural factors that have shaped the way Americans consume the plants growing around us.

Those factors, like how Jim Crow era property restrictions greatly reduced Black Americans’ ability to forage, are always in the back of Nelson’s mind. However, there’s a nuance in the way she goes about presenting them.

“Sometimes it’s as subtle as giving the Japanese name for Hen of the Woods,” Nelson said. “And sometimes, it’s as not subtle as, ‘Let’s talk about the exact ways that property laws changed in the late 1800s because people didn’t want sharecroppers to have other sources of food.’”

Like so many creators of color, Nelson has been forced to navigate this balance while also managing a slew of hateful comments, some of which accuse her of “politicizing” food content.

The issue was prevalent after her interview with NPR, during which she discussed the historical challenges Black people have faced when interacting with edible plants. In a now-viral video, Nelson responded to the negative commenters with an explanation of why “none of our food” exists without context.

“You always have to be thinking about the cultural touchstones that have to do with your food,” Nelson told In The Know. “Otherwise, in my opinion, your food content is a little bit hollow.”

It’s especially true in the online foraging community, where Nelson says representation has been a major issue. The TikToker told In The Know that when she first started posting videos, she was skeptical about showing her face, fearing her content would suffer due to her skin color.

“Looking back on it, there was probably a lot of pressure I was internalizing because there was no one else in the space who looked like me,” Nelson said.

The combination of the historical, race-based barriers around foraging and the long-documented racial biases of many social media apps made for a difficult environment online — one that Nelson said is just now starting to open up. The 29-year-old said there are “so many more” people of color in the found-food space than when she started. These days, some of her peers are speaking at national conferences or leading panel discussions on fungi.

“Three years ago, none of us were in those conversations,” Nelson said. “Now we’re kind of leading and facilitating some of them, which gives me a lot of hope.”

Although she’s sometimes hesitant to admit it, Nelson has played a major role in that expansion. She’s spoken on panels about Black farming and even led an online lecture for the United States Botanic Garden.

Recently, TikTok gave Nelson its own recognition when the app named her to its star-studded Changemakers list. For Nelson, it was an affirmation that her content truly was making a difference.

“When it comes down to it, it feels almost self-indulgent to be making the content that I’m making. And because it feels that way, it’s easy to be like, ‘This isn’t changing anything, I’m just making this because I like it, and those aren’t allowed to be the things that move the needle,’” Nelson explained. “So to find out that it is moving the needle for a large group of people feels fantastic.”

Nelson sees her influence as a form of responsibility. She considers herself “lucky,” having grown up with Black parents who passed along their knowledge of plants and the natural world. It’s a lineage she wants to help continue through TikTok.

“I constantly think of how … I don’t know, maybe I can help be that start for someone else’s knowledge and lineage,” she said. “Because this is knowledge that used to be really widespread — and I feel like it should be again.”

Now months into her life as a full-time content creator, Nelson has plenty of plans for achieving this goal. She knows she’ll keep growing on TikTok, but she is also considering a foray into long-form food content. She’s writing her debut book, which she hopes to finish by the end of 2022. And, she joked to In The Know, she “won’t complain” if someone wants to give her a TV show.

The speed of Nelson’s new life can feel a little dizzying. Speaking about her fame, she can be surprised, even incredulous, and always, always grateful. She feels lucky to be following her dreams — a cliché that she’s now learned stops sounding ridiculous once you’ve lived it. Now, she wants others to realize the same thing.

“I think there are a lot of people out here with really great stories to tell who maybe think that people don’t want to hear them. I was one of those people,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I hadn’t made that first video.”

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