In her new memoir, Iliana Regan records her childhood in rural Indiana and how her cuisine is tied to the wild landscape that she has always loved.
As someone who has a medicinal garden and envisions one day that I will harvest most of my kitchen's ingredients, Fieldwork: A Foragers Memoir by Iliana Regan, spoke to me as soon as I saw the chanterelle mushroom on the evergreen cover. Reading the book brought me back to my own childhood: the smell of the earth as you run through the mud without a care in the world, but also the confusion of trying to understand your parents as people, your surroundings and self. Iliana Regan is a Michelin star chef who bounces between the big city of Chicago to nestling in the Hiawatha Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to reconnect with the very thing that made her love food and the land she forages from for the B&B she opened with her wife Anna, Milkweed Inn. Through this memoir, she records her childhood in rural Indiana and how her cuisine is tied to the wild landscape that she has always loved.
Author Photo by Sara Stathas.
Porchlight Book Company: You state several times throughout the book that you never enjoyed the corporate world, especially as a chef. Has moving away from Chicago part-time and moving to the Hiawatha Forest reawakened your love for creating dishes surfaced from the land?
Iliana Regan: I haven’t really been too much in the corporate world, but I know it wouldn’t be for me. The restaurant world, whether corporate or even small and independent as some of my restaurants were, didn’t feel sustainable. It wasn’t sustainable for me because of the grind, the management, but also because of the amount of energy and supplies we needed to use to make it work. Cooking for a smaller number of people allows me to grow and gather my own food, and the ability to use less natural resources so I don’t have the mental burden that comes along with waste. As conscious as I was at the restaurants on that front, there was still excess. Cooking the way I’m able to at Milkweed feels much more aligned with how I want to care for the environment.
Porchlight Book Company: The way you write about growing up eating from, using, and learning from the land shows how much it shaped you into the person you are today. How do you make sure your guests can tap into the same connection to the land when they visit Milkweed Inn?
Iliana Regan: There’s no way for me to make sure they can tap into it, but cooking for them, using the elements around them, and them being right in the middle of it… does, I guess, allow it to seep into them in a way. There’s got to be something to it. Whereas, with my restaurant, we used many local items, foraged foods when we could, but it was all shipped or driven into the city. At Milkweed they get to be right in the middle of it all.
Porchlight Book Company: This book gives the reader an intimate sense of who you are now but also of who you were as a child. You share some raw and personal moments you have experienced with your family and other difficulties, such as addiction. Why do you think it’s important to write about these hard topics? Is there any one reason personally, professionally, or socially above the rest drives you to share your truth?
Iliana Regan: I’m a pretty quiet and shy person but I express myself through food and writing and ultimately want people to know who I am, and I want to know people. Sharing stories that made us is how we get to know one another. I think it’s important because memories shape us. I couldn’t write about why I do or cook the things I do if I don’t write about those things.
Porchlight Book Company: I found myself feeling as if I was in the Hiawatha Forest with you as you foraged, listening to the bears and wolves in the distance and the smell of the earth underfoot. I imagine that your guests receive a special experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Your childhood prepared you for the life you are leading now. Do you feel like it was your destiny to provide this experience to those who tend to get lost in the hubbub of modern life?
Iliana Regan: I do think it was in me. I was telling many of these stories that stretched beyond my own past like the stories of Busia, my dad, mom, grandfathers, because, yes, it’s in my blood already. I think it’s in my bones and very much a part of me. They all showed me, even the ones I didn’t meet, how to be in nature. And my hope is that others find a way to connect to the natural world whether it’s through Milkweed for a weekend, food, or in any way they can find it in their own lives.
Porchlight Book Company: Throughout the book, you talk about how mushrooms are your connection to your childhood, your family, and to the earth. I love this sentence in Chapter 6, where you speak to the mushrooms on your kitchen island that you and your father had recently foraged: “Spread on our island, their smell was like the trees, dirt, earth, the beginning of time.” Do you still feel like this when you forage on your own in the Hiawatha Forest?
Iliana Regan: I very much feel like this. It’s sort of like time travel.
Porchlight Book Company: A thread that weaves throughout the book is the heartache you feel as the loggers destroy the landscape, and therefore the wildlife's home, and the foraging areas you love so much. It really is a love letter to nature, what nature provides us, and how to love her back. Living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, do you see others in the area also working towards conserving the land, and, if so, how are they doing that?
Iliana Regan: Yes, I know several people who have land, simply so that it doesn’t get logged. I know we will never log our property. But I have also met others who have their own reasons for logging that makes sense to them and for the land they are stewards of, and it’s not always about money or malfeasance.
Porchlight Book Company: I was so mesmerized with some of the stories you told about your family’s history, especially the one about your grandmother, Buscia, who used to make a dish called czarnina, a Polish duck blood-based soup. The way you told these stories of your family heritage shows how highly you think of what your family has passed down to you and how much you cherish those lessons beyond time. I could envision Buscia creating this traditional meal while you describe creating it decades later. It was quite lovely. How do these kinds of memories shape the dishes you make now?
Iliana Regan: A lot of what I make is based on the past, something my mom, dad, sisters, or grandparents made. I am always a little inspired by what they have done. The book I’m currently writing is based around Jennie’s Cafe, in the time before I was born, and it’s a narrative cookbook account of the meals and happenings from that time and place.
Porchlight Book Company: Hard question, but I am so curious. What has fed your soul this year?
Iliana Regan: Right now, writing and spending time with my family is my soul food.
Porchlight Book Company: What dish have you created during the last year that gave you utter joy?
Iliana Regan: Wild bear’s tooth mushroom with a sauce of egg yolks and garum with herbs from our garden.
Porchlight Book Company: How has this book impacted you differently than your first book, Burn the Place, and what projects can we look forward to next from you?
Iliana Regan: This book gave me the chance to bring together a story that was happening often in real time, so it was certainly a learning experience. I’m proud that I was able to go in this direction. The next project is this narrative cookbook I mentioned, centered around Jennie’s Cafe. And hopefully after that, there will be more. I love writing as much as I love cooking.
About Fieldwork: A Forager's Memoir
From National Book Award–nominee Iliana Regan, a new memoir of her life and heritage as a forager, spanning her ancestry in Eastern Europe, her childhood in rural Indiana, and her new life set in the remote forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Fieldwork explores how Regan’s complex gender identity informs her acclaimed work as a chef and her profound experience of the natural world.
Not long after Iliana Regan’s celebrated debut, Burn the Place, became the first food-related title in four decades to become a National Book Award nominee in 2019, her career as a Michelin star–winning chef took a sharp turn north. Long based in Chicago, she and her new wife, Anna, decided to create a culinary destination, the Milkweed Inn, located in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, where much of the food served to their guests would be foraged by Regan herself in the surrounding forest and nearby river. Part fresh challenge, part escape, Regan’s move to the forest was also a return to her rural roots, in an effort to deepen the intimate connection to nature and the land that she’d long expressed as a chef, but experienced most intensely growing up.
On her family’s farm in rural Indiana, Regan was the beloved youngest in a family with three much older sisters. From a very early age, her relationship with her mother and father was shaped by her childhood identification as a boy. Her father treated her like the son he never had, and together they foraged for mushrooms, berries, herbs, and other wild food in the surrounding countryside—especially her grandfather’s nearby farm, where they also fished in its pond and young Iliana explored the accumulated family treasures stored in its dusty barn. Her father would share stories of his own grandmother, Busia, who’d helped run a family inn while growing up in eastern Europe, from which she imported her own wild legends of her native forests, before settling in Gary, Indiana, and opening Jennie’s Café, a restaurant that fed generations of local steelworkers. He also shared with Iliana a steady supply of sharp knives and—as she got older—guns.
Iliana’s mother had family stories as well—not only of her own years marrying young, raising headstrong girls, and cooking at Jennie’s, but also of her father, Wayne, who spent much of his boyhood hunting with the men of his family in the frozen reaches of rural Canada. The stories from this side of Regan’s family are darker, riven with alcoholism and domestic strife too often expressed in the harm, physical and otherwise, perpetrated by men—harm men do to women and families, and harm men do to the entire landscapes they occupy.
As Regan explores the ancient landscape of Michigan’s boreal forest, her stories of the land, its creatures, and its dazzling profusion of plant and vegetable life are interspersed with her and Anna’s efforts to make a home and a business of an inn that’s suddenly, as of their first full season there in 2020, empty of guests due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She discovers where the wild blueberry bushes bear tiny fruit, where to gather wood sorrel, and where and when the land’s different mushroom species appear—even as surrounding parcels of land are suddenly and violently decimated by logging crews that obliterate plant life and drive away the area’s birds. Along the way she struggles not only with the threat of COVID, but also with her personal and familial legacies of addiction, violence, fear, and obsession—all while she tries to conceive a child that she and her immune-compromised wife hope to raise in their new home.
With Burn the Place, Regan announced herself as a writer whose extravagant, unconventional talents matched her abilities as a lauded chef. In Fieldwork, she digs even deeper to express the meaning and beauty we seek in the landscapes, and stories, that reveal the forces which inform, shape, and nurture our lives.