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 Alexis Nikole Nelson talking to young boy about foraging at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio

Nature Nosher

Ohio food forager Alexis Nikole Nelson inspires others to go natural.

Alexis Nikole Nelson talks foraging at the Nelsonville Music Festival

Nature Nosher

By Wendy Pramik

Posted On: Sep 20, 2022

A crowd gathers at the Nelsonville Music Festival, in the heart of Ohio's inviting region of Appalachia, to meet a woman from the big city who's going to show them how to forage for food in the wild countryside.

That might sound surprising. But Alexis Nikole Nelson, a 30-year-old free spirit who lives in the Columbus neighborhood of Franklinton, is a one-of-a-kind expert in the art of finding foods in surprising places.

She arrives in a flowery dress and butterfly clips in her hair. "I like dressing up for the plants," she says, "because the plants always look so showy."

As a forager, cook, and Internet sensation, Nelson seeks out plants, nuts, seeds, and other gifts of nature, often in places that are anything but obvious. Known as the "Black Forager," she posts photos and videos of her rummaged grub, with cooking tips, on social media accounts. Her videos are both enlightening and hilarious.

Alexis Nikole Nelson smelling a foraged plant at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio

Since 2019, Nelson's TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter accounts have grown to more than 5 million followers. This year she won the inaugural James Beard Award for Best Social Media Account. She's currently working on a cookbook that Simon & Schuster plans to publish next year.

Alexis Nikole Nelson talking to crowd about foraging at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio

Nelson explains to the crowd that foraging, a practice that was commonplace before industrialization, made a comeback during World War II with the ubiquitous Victory Gardens but quickly fell out of favor.

"After World War II ended, everyone was like, 'We're gonna move to the suburbs and erase all these trees,'" she says. "When that happened a lot of people forgot a lot of knowledge about plants their parents or grandparents might have otherwise taught them.

"It really doesn't take more than a generation of people not doing something for that practice to almost completely disappear."

But, as she told the crowd, "We never completely lost our grip on foraging and our connection to the land around us. Mamma Earth doesn't forget about us."

Nelson grew up in Cincinnati, attending Walnut Hills High School. She graduated from The Ohio State University in 2015 with degrees in environmental science and theatre.

Her mother introduced her to foraging at age five when she pointed out wild onion grass could be a substitute for green onions in recipes. Nelson says her family's African and indigenous roots also contributed to her drive to forage.

Alexis Nikole Nelson holding forage plants out to show group of small children at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio

"I like to describe what's happened to the American consciousness over the last seven decades as plant blindness," she says. "You take a random person off the street, and you take them to the park, and you point at the ground, and you ask them what it is and they're going to say grass. You point up and you ask them what it is and they're going to say tree. That is where the details are going to stop. We see green and our minds just kind of go fuzzy.

"But there's so much more nuance. And if you take a moment and start paying close attention, you start seeing all the beautiful differences between the trees."

In an age of widespread technology and instant gratification, it's thrilling to Nelson that her popularity is soaring. Millions of people seek out her foraging advice over the Internet, and that's drawn national media attention.

The New York Times and Bon Appétit magazine have told her story, and she has appeared on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" and "The Drew Barrymore Show." Forbes added her to its "30 Under 30" list in 2021.

While watching her in person, it's easy to see the attraction.

Alexis Nikole Nelson at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio

"Here we have a pine," she tells the Nelsonville audience. "This guy has five needles in a group. He is a white pine. We also have red pines. They have two needles in a group. Pines are very rich in vitamin C. You can't get scurvy if you have a pine nearby.

"In the springtime, these little buds are going to send out new needles, they're going to be bright green and very tender, tender enough that you can eat them straight off the tree. They're going to taste lemony. I love grinding up the new needles with a little bit of salt. If you thought lemon shortbread cookies were good, no, you gotta try a pine shortbread cookie.

"Let's give it up for the white pine!"

woman and man standing behind tree next to each other hugging at nelsonville music festival in ohio

Nelson lives with her partner, Geoffrey Parker. They have two pets, a dog called Colonel Mustard and an orange cat called Push Pop that they found while foraging for lotus roots.

"Ohio still has a lot of green spaces," Nelson says. "In our neck of the woods in Franklinton, we have pocket parks every other street, and those hold a surprising amount of biodiversity. That's where I've gotten a lot of my milkweed in the summer."

Parker spots a pawpaw tree, prompting Nelson to expound upon on the merits of Ohio's native fruit.

looking up at pawpaw tree in nelsonville ohio

"Truly the pride of the Ohio forest, we have afrometa travora," she says. "It's the pawpaw, also known by a million other names, like the hillbilly mango. It's very sweet, sugary, and tropical. The trees are very skinny and flexible. You don't want to pick pawpaws when they're hard. They will rot on your countertop. You only want to take them home when they're fragrant and when pushing a thumb into them leaves an impression."

Nelson has been coming to the Nelsonville Music Festival since her college days. She tells attendees that earlier in the day she added some autumn olive, which she found at the campground, to her granola.

"The undersides of its leaves are metallic and silver, so when the wind moves across it kind of does this little dance and it looks shiny and bluer then the trees around it because you see an alternating green and silver," she says.

"When you pause to notice those details, honestly the world just seems a lot more magical than it already seems."

For more about "Wild, Wonderful, Native Ohio Foods" and recipes like in ODNR's Wild Ohio Harvest Cookbook,  check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.

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