Foraging for Joy

words by whitney bauck

Alexis Nikole Nelson, aka Black Forager, is inspiring a new generation of wild food enthusiasts with her whimsical approach.

Walking down an ordinary street in Columbus, Ohio, Alexis Nikole Nelson sees food everywhere she looks. The acorns underneath that oak would make a nice vegan bacon. Those mulberry leaves provide a lovely matcha dupe. And the mushrooms on that log could become a tasty stand-in for chicken nuggets.

 

For Nelson, foraging is a way of life, and it means she sees every city block as a sort of free grocery store bursting with delicious possibilities.

 

Born and raised in Ohio, Nelson inherited her “sticky brain for plant information” from her mother, who pointed out edible weeds in the garden when Nelson was growing up. But it wasn’t until a year or so after college, when Nelson was “extraordinarily broke” and tired of subsisting mostly on ramen, that she got serious about foraging.

 

“I discovered a lot of curly dock growing in my old neighborhood—it’s lemony and very abundant,” she tells me in a phone interview. “I started throwing that into my soups and ramens to brighten them up and add some roughage so I wasn’t just eating salt and pure carbohydrates every day.”

 

Fast forward about five years, and Nelson spends an average of two hours a day foraging or processing wild food. She says that from late summer to early winter, about half the food she eats is foraged.

“There’s something really grounding and a little humbling about working very hard for your food once in a while.”

Alexis Nikole Nelson

Not only that, but she’s inspiring others to embrace wild foods, too. Nelson, a former social media manager, went viral on her personal TikTok at the start of the pandemic for posting a video about how to stretch your groceries with easy-to-spot edible weeds. Since then, she’s become a bona fide star on social media, and recently quit her full-time job to work on a foraging book.

 

Despite her foraging origin story—broke post-grad life and a pandemic—her work is marked less by a sense of scarcity than by pure, unbridled joy. She sings, jokes and laughs her way through turning pine cones into candy and flowers into fritters so winsomely that it’s hard not to want to follow her lead—even if it means spending hours leaching the tannins out of acorns.

 

“Food has become a really mindless activity for a lot of people, and that leaves you feeling a little empty, even when you’re full,” she says. “There’s something really grounding and a little humbling about working very hard for your food once in a while.”

 

I connected with Nelson on the phone to talk about being the least judgey vegan ever, foraging while Black, and getting to know your “plant neighbors.”

Whitney

What is it about foraging that keeps you coming back?

Alexis

I love having this connection to my food. It’s very fulfilling. Nine times out of 10 it’s good for me. (Although I’m not gonna tell anyone that acorn bacon is good for them. Everybody saw how much vegan butter I put into that.) But it’s also an easy way to nurture myself emotionally, mentally and physically. I feel my best while I’m outdoors. I get to take some of that feeling home when I forage.

Whitney

How can newbies start to learn foraging skills?

Alexis

Learning alongside someone else who knows better than you is the best way. Find a local Facebook foraging group. You see someone post about something that morning and then while you’re out for a walk that afternoon, you spot it, you have a picture to check against, and you have a jumping off point to start doing your research.

“Foraging is an easy way to nurture myself emotionally, mentally and physically. I feel my best while I’m outdoors.”

Alexis Nikole Nelson

Whitney

Seeing how abundant all this food around us is that most of us don’t even recognize as food makes me wonder—why did we ever stop eating these things in the first place? Why don’t most of us eat acorns, for example?

Alexis

A large portion of that is convenience. When there’s an easier option, it’s very easy for things to fall out of the zeitgeist.

Whitney

Some of it’s gotta be money, too, right? Because it’s not “convenient” to ship food from other parts of the world, but we do that.

Alexis

How cheaply companies can pay for that labor elsewhere often outweighs how convenient it would be to grow a different crop here in the United States. Quinoa in Peru and Bolivia come to mind—that’s a pretty time-consuming gathering process. We have cousins of quinoa that grow here, but it’s easier for large companies to scale it up somewhere where they can be more lax in terms of the way that they are treating the folks growing and harvesting.

Whitney

Talk to me a little bit about your veganism. What’s that about for you?

Alexis

I went vegetarian at age 12. It took me a long time, but about six years ago, I finally cut dairy out of my diet. I’m also definitely lactose intolerant—I didn’t realize people weren’t having two hour long stomach aches every day.

 

Much of my veganism comes from knowing how large-scale meat and dairy works—it does not minimize the suffering of animals. If food systems were more localized, I don’t think I would go back to eating meat, but I would probably dip my toe into things like goat milk and eggs. But because that’s not the direction that food is heading right now, it just helps me sleep better at night to not take part in it at all.

Whitney

When people are as committed to something as you are to this, they often get really frustrated with people who don’t share that conviction. But that’s not how you come across. How do you balance those things?

Alexis

You’re never going to change minds yelling at people. So I would much rather just show people that I’m happy and healthy. If they want to do the same, in part or in full, they can.

 

And I don’t know anybody’s exact situation. My friend who inspired me to go vegan ended up having to stop being vegan because of health issues. The family who hunts and takes home one deer or moose and that’s the protein their family is consuming for an entire year—I’m not going to tell them that they’re ruining the planet, because they’re not. They’re doing a better job lessening their footprint than a vegan who’s living off Beyond burgers and junk food.

 

This is probably going to get my vegan card taken away, but one of my neighbors has ducks. And every once in a blue moon, their ducks will just go absolutely ham laying eggs, and they can’t keep up with it. They’ll ask if I want some and I’ll say yes. Because food waste also makes me sad.

Whitney

What sort of ethical framework would you point other people toward to figure out what’s right for them?

Alexis

My guiding light is always do the least harm. It’s impossible to do no harm. Bugs get killed every time your kale gets harvested. Mice get hurt every time grain is harvested with those giant combines. There’s no way to eliminate all aspects of suffering from how we sustain ourselves. I just try to do my best.

“You’re never going to change minds yelling at people. So I would much rather just show people that I’m happy and healthy.”

Alexis Nikole Nelson

Whitney

How does Blackness influence your experience of foraging, both IRL and online?

Alexis

It was definitely hard growing up very nerdy and very Black. I cannot hide either of those things about myself. In the last 15 years as foraging has been creeping into the zeitgeist, it’s been a very white male activity, which is crazy because historically women were doing a lot, if not all, of the foraging. I’m thankful for the beautiful nightmare that is TikTok because now a lot of Black and brown kids are getting to see me and others being outrageously nerdy about this stuff.

 

There’s a benefit of the doubt that my white counterparts receive when they are out and about. It is hard being a person of color doing an unidentifiable action. There’s a park in my neighborhood with beautiful oak trees, and I’ve been over there every single day gathering acorns. The way that my primarily white neighbors will find excuses to be doing things on their porch or in their front yard while I am over there—it’s wild! I wonder if anyone would raise an eyebrow if it was a Caucasian person out there with nut clippers.

Whitney

What are the intersections between climate change and foraging?

Alexis

Part of the do no harm mindset has to be holistic and global. Like we were talking about earlier, shipping quinoa from Bolivia to the United States uses so much fuel. Wouldn’t it be so cool if someone just walked into the backyard and gathered the lambsquarters growing as a weed and ate some of that instead? The footprint on our food has gotten humongous over the last 20 years because of how globalized the food economy has become. I can’t think of a way to use less fuel than foraging. But that’s not a realistic expectation for everyone; it’s a tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Whitney

How can walking around and seeing food growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk or falling from a tree change our relationship with the natural world?

Alexis

The more you get to know your plant neighbors, the more exciting your surroundings will seem. It’s hard to care about something you don’t know about. But it feels good to foster connections with your surroundings, and then you end up taking better care of them. I think getting to know your surroundings will lead to you being a lot happier where you are, in a way that’s very hard to put your finger on.

Whitney

Is foraging something you hope more people adopt?

Alexis

If there’s one thing I want people to walk away from my content with, it’s thinking more deeply about any of the food they’re consuming, whether they grew it, found it themselves or picked it up at the grocery store. I just want folks to be a bit more curious, open-minded and whimsical about the food that they’re choosing to consume.

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