Amanda Page Published

In Eastern Kentucky, Whitney Johnson Forages For The TikTok Generation

An adult woman sits on a four-wheeler wearing sunglasses. She smiles for the camera. She wears a tank top shirt and black pants. She sports a messy bun of hair. There is a wicker basket on the front of the four-wheeler.
Whitney Johnson poses on her four-wheeler while out on her family’s property in eastern Kentucky.
Amanda Page/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the May 26, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Whitney Johnson claims that her four-wheeler is a game changer.

The four-wheeler helps her cover more ground more quickly. She can look out over the land her family owns in eastern Kentucky and easily spot color — which just might be a mushroom.

“It’s a utopia for all things edible and wild,” she says. 

For Johnson, “all things edible and wild” keeps her days busy. What was once a hobby that started in childhood is now a business thanks to the interest she’s generated on TikTok.

Johnson is known on Instagram and TikTok as @appalachian_forager. Her popularity has garnered her features on television news stations such as WSAZ in Huntington, West Virginia, and KET in Kentucky.

For as long as people have lived in Appalachia, they’ve gathered ramps, mushrooms, roots and berries to feed themselves and their families. Foraging for food is a skill that is often taught down generational lines. Foraging is sometimes a closely held practice, since some foragers don’t like to reveal their best spots. Now, though, some foragers are sharing their knowledge in the digital realm. Through the work of Johnson and other accounts like @blackforager — who forages in urban locales — the practice has gained popularity in recent years. 

The Appeal Of The Instagram Reels

In 2020, Johnson started an Instagram account about her adventures in foraging in eastern Kentucky. Once she started showing the world how to collect mushrooms and poke, her following grew rapidly — to the tune of 845,000 followers. That old Instagram account flourished with the help of her TikTok presence, and she now has over 123,000 followers on that account, as well.

In one popular Instagram reel, Johnson cheers on her boyfriend, who’s attempting to knock a mushroom down from a tree with a stick. 

“Yes, Daddy!” she says off-camera. “You know what Mommy likes in a mushroom stick. Look at that fork!”

In another, more fast-paced reel, she’s in her kitchen, cooking with pawpaws. She mixes the yellow pulp from this native fruit with sugar and pectin to make jam.

“Remove the baby from the heat,” she says in her reel, “because your girl runs hot. Real hot….”

Johnson’s reels are highly entertaining. They made me want to meet her IRL — internet lingo for “in real life.” So, I traveled to eastern Kentucky to spend a day with Johnson foraging for the wild fruit.

Finding Pawpaws With Appalachian Forager

It’s September, which is pawpaw season, so Johnson and I head out on her four-wheeler to find some. She takes us in the direction of the Big Sandy River, where we stop at a tree loaded with pawpaws. 

An adult woman sits on a four-wheeler wearing sunglasses. She smiles for the camera. She wears a tank top shirt and black pants. She sports a messy bun of hair. There is a wicker basket on the front of the four-wheeler. She also picks pawpaws from a tree.
Johnson finds pawpaws on her family’s property in eastern Kentucky.

Photo Credit: Amanda Page/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We’ll get off here,” she says. “Look at that big cluster. Oh, my goodness!”

Johnson doesn’t shake the tree, or pick fruit from it. She only gathers pawpaws once they’ve fallen on the ground.

“They let you know when they’re ready. If you shake the tree, sometimes they’ll come off when they’re not quite ripe. And pawpaws are not ones that you can put in your windowsill and get them to be softer. They are what they are. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you shake the tree.”

We could have gone foraging deeper in the woods, but Johnson chose this section along the river for a reason. 

“Riverbanks give you different stuff than, say, the woods would,” she says. “So, you’re going to have different types of soil, different types of trees, different types of terrain.” 

By the river, she has a pretty good idea of what she’ll find. Along with pawpaws, this is where she forages for berries. But the woods are a little less predictable. Johnson says she’s never certain what she’ll find there. 

It might just be that element of surprise that makes Johnson’s social media presence so appealing to her followers. 

“I would post a picture of a mushroom and say this is a ‘blah blah blah,’ and you can eat it or it will kill you or whatever.”

But at first, her posts didn’t really catch on.

“And some of my buddies were like, ‘TikTok. You need to get a TikTok.’ And I was so anti-TikTok. But I got on there, and I made this poorly put-together intro video that was like, ‘I’m Whitney and these are the things that I plan to do on my TikTok. Follow me if that tickles your pickle.’” 

Appalachian Forager took off. She’s now able to spend most of her time foraging and sharing her work with her enthusiastic followers.

Foraging For Improved Mental Health 

Johnson doesn’t post for the clicks.

As a licensed mental health therapist, she says it’s important for her to illustrate to her followers the healing effects of spending time in nature.

“These go hand in hand for me. Because as a therapist, I preach self-care all day: ‘Make sure you’re doing what you love.’ ‘Make sure you’re taking care of yourself.’ And I get that through my relationship with nature.”

She says she doesn’t force advice. But she’s asked patients if they’ve considered going for a walk in nature, or taking photos and journaling.

“I suggest that because I know how much it helps me.”

She says eventually, she’d like to specialize in ecotherapy, where she’d encourage patients to go out in nature to improve their mental health.

“I want people to connect with Mama Nature,” she says. “The hills and the woods are my church, and if you can connect in that way and get that serotonin boost from it like I do, do it. And it’s nice to go out and get some free food too.”

After our time on the riverbank, we hang out on Johnson’s porch and have a pawpaw tasting. I had only tried them one other time. I tell her that this one is much better than the last one, which had a vague vomit taste. 

“That’s because it wasn’t ripe,” she says. “This is why you want them to be almost rotten-looking because that’s when they taste the best.”

Appalachian Ingenuity

After we eat pawpaws, I ask Johnson about her earrings. I’ve been admiring them all day. She tells me they’re made with coyote teeth she found in a ditch.

A close-up, profile image of an adult woman with brown hair. She looks up off camera, and the focus of the photo is on her earrings. Her earrings are teeth wrapped around metal wire.
Johnson models her coyote teeth earrings.

Photo Credit: Amanda Page/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I like taking anything from the freaking woods, bringing it home and turning it into something beautiful and useful, because that’s just how I am. I think that’s how I was raised. Do what you can with what you have.”

That’s often how her meals come together, too.

“​​I always try to pull from old-timey, ‘Mamaw, Papaw,’ plate-breaking, gut-busting foods. Good garden foods like green beans, chicken and dumplings, just good, down-home food.” 

She says she incorporates foods she finds in the woods with the dishes she ate growing up in eastern Kentucky.

“So it’s like taking the two and fusing it together — because I want to stay true to that part of me because that’s how I grew up,” she says. “That’s my favorite food that’s out there — throw some bacon grease in it and it’s gonna be good.” 

She tells me about a mountain dish she shared with her followers called killed or kilt lettuce and onions.

A close up video screenshot of a salad with onions.
A screenshot from Johnson’s TikTok video on how to make kilt lettuce and onions.

Photo Credit: Courtesy/Appalachian Forager

“Kilt lettuce and onions is pretty much just wild greens or lettuce with bacon grease poured on top of it. And I posted that video and so many people were like, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t had that in forever. I totally forgot that was something I loved as a kid.’ I like to revive those old dishes and have people in this day and age making those old, wholesome, down-home meals.” 

Johnson’s bringing that revival of old dishes to hundreds of thousands of followers online. Her followers ask questions in the comments and share tips they’ve learned from making the recipes she shares. They’re doing what she’s doing. She’s foraging for the TikTok generation. And while her online presence brings buyers to her website, she says she won’t be changed by social media. 

“I’m going to stay true to who I am. I don’t plan on doing anything crazy, selling out, becoming like, some crazy ‘boss babe’ thing. I’m just gonna stay in the holler and pick my mushrooms and make my little videos.”

We’ll be here to watch them.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.