Beneath the forest floor, there is a hidden network of threadlike fibers — called mycelium — connecting every tree and plant through the same fungi that eventually sprouts from the ground to produce mushrooms. It makes sure every plant organism in the forest has the resources it needs to survive and distributes those resources over many miles and ecosystems. The mycelial network stretches so long in every direction that it has more connections than the human brain’s neural pathways, functioning as a forest communication system that bridges all the flora there to each other’s presents, pasts, and futures. In Michelin-star chef Iliana Regan’s new book Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir, she utilizes a similar structure in her writing, linking all of her current experiences to her childhood growing up at her family’s farmhouse, the foraging missions she went on with her parents along with the ones she goes as an adult, and herself directly to the land she lives on.
Beginning and ending with two different kinds of dreams — the first of failed attempts at foraging morel mushrooms in the spring and the final one of teaching an imagined child to love the land as she does — Fieldwork tells the story of how Regan and her wife, Anna, escaped their hectic city life in Chicago to open their now-famed Milkweed Inn on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Regan’s interactions with the flora and fauna of their new home become reflections on her becoming. Fieldwork doesn’t begin where her first memoir, Burn The Place, left off. It builds on the stories she previously told to help readers understand how she became who she is even further. Where Burn The Place focuses on the most tumultuous parts of Regan’s past, on her struggles with alcoholism, and on her rise from home-taught chef to owner and operator of one of the best fine dining restaurants in the nation, the stories and reflections of Fieldwork operate similarly to the mycelium, adhering all of the painful moments of her life to the joyful ones, all of her family’s history to her desire to care for people through the dishes she creates, and all of the various parts of the ecosystems she inhabits to the different journeys of her life.
After many years of working in city kitchens and her own at the highly acclaimed Elizabeth in Chicago, Regan takes a “gamble” on Milkweed in the hopes of designing an atmosphere that would give people a taste of what it was like to grow up in her parents’ farmhouse: “It’s true that what I’m doing here is trying to give people something like the feeling of what I experienced as a child. Being in an untamed place yet feeling safe and nourished. I’m showing them the magic I experienced, welcoming them to how I once felt.”
Set to open in the summer of 2020, Regan and her wife quickly realized early that year they wouldn’t be able to bring this dream to life as soon as they wanted to. As a result, they both spent a lot time “testing out the different accommodations, keeping the place up, caulking, keeping out mice, organizing leftover items from the previous owners into ‘keep’ and ‘donate’ piles, starting gardens” and getting to know the land of their new home more intimately.
Interspersed with Regan’s stories of plant foraging in the forest, fishing in the Sturgeon River near the Milkweed Inn, and creating her own analog map of this new-to-her wilderness are the stories of how she learned to do these things and who she learned them from. She reacquaints us with her parents as they take her wild strawberry and mulberry picking, and with her sisters as they get in trouble with their dad for using drugs and sneaking out. She introduces us to her Grandma Busia as Regan’s mom recreates Busia’s famous czarnina — Duck’s blood — soup in the kitchen of their farmhouse, and her Grandpa Wayne as he tries to crack black walnuts with her dad on the same day her parents conceived her. Within each reconstructed memory and reflection, Regan illustrates the processes it takes to get these found ingredients to their final form: the fermentation of apples to make cider or cabbage to make sauerkraut or green elderberries to make capers; the chopping and slow cooking of her family’s czarnina; the stewing of mulberries for pies; the stuffing of intestines to make pork blood sausage. Much like the mycelial model the narrative took its form from, mushrooms — her love of them, her family’s love of them, her ancestral connection to them, the ways her Milkweed guests interact with them — help us move through the network from one reflection to the next. It’s enough to make you dream of visiting that farmhouse or, more tangibly, of spending a weekend at the Milkweed Inn.
As Regan guides you through the mycelial network she’s constructed, she candidly — at times, painfully so — examines her family’s history of addiction and her relapse into drinking near the beginning of the pandemic, her father’s anxiety and attachments to fear that seem to be rubbing off on her, her complicated relationship with her gender identity, and the grief she carries as a result of the death of her older sister, her inability to conceive a child, and a “hole” she cannot seem to fill no matter how hard she tries. Among all of it lies a beautiful and fascinating rumination on identity and how the the way we grow into ourselves is rooted — or connected — to everything before us and around us:
“Dad was the boletus. Mom was the chanterelle. Dad was the forest. Mom was the kitchen. Dad was the forager. Mom was the chef. Dad was outside. Mom was inside. Dad was nature. Mom was nurture. Dad caused problems. Mom solved problems. Dad was violent. Mom was safe. Dad was anxious. Mom was depressed. I fruited from them, and I was all those things too. I was also the sheep’s head — wily, twisting — and the honey mushroom — stretching, symbiotic.”
There are moments in the narration that seem surreal as Regan brings us to disparate parts of her network. She weaves dreams with memories. She intertwines narration of the present with bits of the past that she sometimes wasn’t even alive for. As she takes us along with her on her exploration of the forest, she calls on us to go find our own piece of the natural world that makes us feel as she does without ever really coming out and saying that. She reminds us, constantly, that there is so much more at our fingertips than we realize and all we have to do is give ourselves a little time to look in order to access it. From the moment the memoir begins to the final sentences at the end, Regan’s passions for the lands, foods, and people she loves and has loved are so palpable you can almost feel them yourself. When I finished Fieldwork, it felt like what I often dream I’d feel if I ever had the opportunity to visit the Milkweed Inn: full.