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TikTok's 'Black Forager' talks new cookbook

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This holiday weekend falls right in the middle of prime foraging season. Spring turns toward summer. There's fruits, berries, flowers and mushrooms galore just waiting for the picking. That said, foraging is not something many of us do these days, but there are people out there who are excited to share the joys of foraging. Alexis Nikole Nelson is a social media breakout star with millions of followers. Nelson goes by the name the Black Forager on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXIS NIKOLE NELSON: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. You guys, you guys, you guys. It's a scarlet elf cup mushroom, two of them.

Oh, chanterelles. Smooth operator.

I keep finding more. Chanterelles grow straight out of the ground, which is a great way to tell them apart from jack-o'-lantern mushroom.

Crown-tipped coral fungus.

Clavicorona pyxidatus. And they're edible.

I love you, sweet...

DETROW: Nelson is here with us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NELSON: Oh, my gosh, Scott, thank you so much for having me. It is literally a joy to be on the show. Long-time listener, first time appearer.

DETROW: Well, we are really glad to have you. Let me start with this. What is the last thing that you found that really, really excited you?

NELSON: Oh, my goodness. The last thing that I found that really excited me - so right now, I am talking to you from Martha's Vineyard. I grew up spending my summers here. And the beach roses are just beginning to bloom, so I gathered a few yesterday. Think of the most fragrant roses you've ever smelled and multiply it by two. And that's the kind of punch that these guys are packing. I was just, like, so enamored. And it's a plant that I've been around my whole life. But when it comes back after, you know, a long winter of being dormant, it just feels like seeing a great friend for the first time in a long time.

DETROW: Yeah. How did you get into foraging? I mean, it seems like you clearly - you love nature. You love plants. How did you get into this? And how did you take that step of, I'm going to forage and I'm going to eat?

NELSON: Well, part of it goes back to my childhood. My mom is an avid gardener and is excellent with all things plants, growing plants, knowing the names of all plants. So one of my earliest memories is her introducing me to onion grass, this really ubiquitous weedy allium. If you mow your lawn and it smells like onion rings all of a sudden, congratulations.

DETROW: Oh, yeah.

NELSON: You have onion grass hiding in there somewhere. Then, jumping forward to my first year out of college, like many of us, I wasn't what one would call wealthy, living off of a lot of packs of ramen. And so one day, it was like a switch flipped. And I thought, you know what would really make this cheap food not only taste a lot better, but also be a lot better for me, is if I throw in all of these greens that I've kind of been learning about for my entire life. So I'd go around my neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, and gather curly dock leaves and wood sorrel and all sorts of other fun flavors and leaves and flowers and fruits, and started incorporating them into really normal meals and, I guess, doing a pretty OK job. My housemates at the time were usually really excited to try whatever I was working on.

DETROW: This leads me to the disclaimers at the end of your TikToks.

NELSON: Yes, the very important disclaimers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: Okie-dokie. Never eat something unless you're 100% sure of what it is. I love you. Happy snacking. Don't die.

DETROW: How - and I'm just thinking, you know, I have a 6-year-old who's often trying to eat berries we come across, and I'm saying, no, don't eat that. You know? How did you get confident enough to know what you can and can't eat? And what are the first steps that you recommend somebody take when they want to go down that road of, OK, I do want to understand what mushrooms I can eat and which ones I absolutely do not want to eat?

NELSON: So I have a couple recommendations. And my first one, it seems really obvious, is to not put anything in your mouth if you're not 100% sure what it is. If there's even the littlest bit of lingering doubt, you simply don't have to eat it. You can take it home for further inspection, you know, hold it up against a guidebook or, you know, check it against references, and then you can make an informed decision. My next one would be, if you're starting out your foraging journey, it can feel really overwhelming. Suddenly you're looking at all of the plants and mushrooms around you and realizing how many different kinds there are. And my advice would be to start small. Just pick one of them, get to know it really well, and then when you feel like you have a handle on it, move on to the next one.

DETROW: So you go by Black Forager on social media. Can you tell us more about how Blackness and foraging are connected for you, how you think about that?

NELSON: Yeah, absolutely. So when I was choosing my username, one thing that I noticed is that I didn't see a lot of faces that looked like me in the wild food space or the wild crafting space period. And that wasn't really surprising to me. Growing up, I kind of often felt like the odd one out for being Black but also being really outdoorsy. So, for me, it was really important, especially back when my posts were usually just plants or food - you couldn't even see my face or my hands - to know that that bit of cooking or that bit of writing was coming from a Black woman, and that we are just as much a part of this space as everybody else, you know.

Everyone at some point following their lineage back is here because of a forager. So why not have the foraging community better reflect that? Additionally, in American history, there's a pretty fraught relationship between Black people and our connection to the outdoors due to a lot of the barriers with us owning land in the past centuries and people putting forth, like, no-trespass rules to keep people from foraging or fishing or hunting or trapping on their land. It really cut off poor people, Black people, other people of color from having access to wild foods. So, for me, it also really feels like a reclamation.

DETROW: Yeah. And I know you've talked a lot about trying to break down those walls, even if they're mental walls, about this idea of black people and the outdoors not being something that goes together.

NELSON: Yeah.

DETROW: One other thing I want to ask about. I understand you're working on a cookbook that's coming out next year. Can you give us a sneak preview of maybe one of the recipes you're excited about?

NELSON: Oh, my goodness, yes, I am. It has been such a labor of love, and I'm so excited for it to get into people's hands. Oh, my gosh. The recipe that I'm really excited to see people try is the burdock and lamb's quarters dip. It's like a wild riff on a spinach and artichoke dip that you'd get at, like, you know, any fast casual restaurant with your family..

DETROW: Yeah.

NELSON: ...On a Saturday night. This one is made with two weeds that people often have growing, if not in their neighborhoods, then in their own yards, and just have likely never thought twice about. So I loved getting to formulate this, like, ooey, gooey, savory, toasty concoction with a plant that people walk by every single day.

DETROW: That is Alexis Nikole Nelson, Black Forager on social media. Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.

NELSON: Oh, it was great talking to you too, Scott. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.