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A city park means green space and a place to forage for meal ingredients

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Most of us think of public parks as a place to play, relax or work out. But urban forager Douglas Kent sees food.

DOUGLAS KENT: This whole area just covered in just goodness. These are all the thistles. You can see them all blooming here. The root makes a coffee substitute. The flowers are edible. The seeds are edible.

MARTÍNEZ: Kent teaches ecological land management at Cal Poly Pomona and is the author of "Foraging Southern California." He recently took me on a tour of Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park near the Port of Los Angeles.

We've been walking 10 minutes, and you've showed us things for cordage. You've showed us things for teas. You've showed us things for medicine to heal our wounds. Essentially, this is a supermarket that we're walking through, right?

KENT: Yeah. Actually, right here, this is a Brazilian pepper.

MARTÍNEZ: He points out a tall bush, heavy with clusters of what look like small pink berries.

I'll taste one. Sure.

KENT: Yeah. It's really slight. So this was a staple of French cooking for years.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, that was really nice. That's a really nice feeling.

Doug showed us that nearly every plant we saw in this park could be foraged. And these plants grow all over California year round.

KENT: You forage greens late winter, early spring, seeds from late spring to early summer, roots late summer to early fall, and then bark and stuff like that from late fall to early winter.

MARTÍNEZ: And if you think this kind of abundance only exists in California with its mild winters, you'd be wrong. From Columbus, Ohio, Alexis Nikole Nelson explains how to find things we may not think of as food and then make them delicious.

ALEXIS NIKOLE NELSON: I think a lot of people don't realize how biodiverse their neighborhoods are. Like, heading into the winter months, I could walk my block and probably find at least 10 different edible plants.

MARTÍNEZ: Nelson is a James Beard Award-winning chef who has amassed millions of followers using the handle @BlackForager on Instagram and TikTok.


NELSON: The volume ratio is 1 of dust to, like, 2 1/2 of water. Mixy, mixy (ph) - may not look like much now, but it'll thicken up as we cook.

MARTÍNEZ: She credits her parents for her deep knowledge of plants.

NELSON: Kind of like kids who are raised learning a different language, I was raised recognizing leaf patterns and branching patterns and buds, and, you know, the time of year that certain plants are doing certain things. As a person who has, like, struggled with my own mental health from a pretty young age, it's really been a lighthouse in what is often the very misty seas that is the inside of my brain.

KENT: Alexis, I noticed in some of your videos that you actually thank the plant or the tree before harvesting. Can you talk about why you do that?

NELSON: I think we've kind of become really disconnected from remembering that the trees, the plants, shrubs, animals are, like, also living things. Yes, they're perceiving the world around them and interacting with it in different ways than we do, but their lives also matter. It helps you build a better relationship with the world around you, and it helps you really savor the importance of what it is you're gathering.

MARTÍNEZ: Why do you think more people have become interested in foraging lately?

NELSON: In terms of very recent things, I think, you know, that very casual global pandemic that affected every single one of us left a lot of people wanting activities that they could do outside with their families or by themselves. And foraging is a great use of outdoor time. If you find a food that you end up really liking, you get a little, like, dopamine payoff every single time that you do it. And we are in times in which you have to get your dopamine where you can get it.


MARTÍNEZ: Now you end every video with the catchphrase, don't die. Tell us why.

NELSON: Oh, because dying is bad, A. It's generally...


NELSON: ...Frowned upon in most societies.

MARTÍNEZ: I think we can all agree that that is true.

NELSON: And, you know, foraging - everyone wants the idyllic, the cottagecore, the frolicking with your basket full of greens and flowers and berries. But you do have to remember that safety is the most important. I originally ended a video that way for the first time as a joke, because my partner is an attorney (laughter), and he was like, oh, oh, oh, no, you got to remind people to not die.

MARTÍNEZ: Is foraging different for a Black forager?

NELSON: Yeah, I would absolutely say that it is. We have a pretty fraught history of our relationship with outdoor spaces and with the food knowledge of those spaces, you know. During the times when people were enslaved, foraging was, like, a really great way to round out a meal. There was a whole lot of information and knowledge transfer between Indigenous populations and Black populations, trying to help each other kind of better survive. People still sometimes get uncomfortable when they see a Black person doing an activity that they cannot immediately identify.

And if you've seen my videos, I'm usually in, like, floofy dresses and a lot of makeup or flower crowns, because I would always rather have someone come up to me and ask what they're doing before, like, calling the police. So I do think that foraging as a Black person is a little different in the United States. I do think that it's important to be getting a lot of different perspectives to remind people that at some point in time, every single one of us is here today because one of our ancestors, however far back you have to go, foraged. And I just - I love getting to honor that with foraging and getting to share that with other people.

MARTÍNEZ: That's forager, cook, social media extrovert Alexis Nikole Nelson. Alexis, thank you.

NELSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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