A Forager's Memoir
Published by: Agate Publishing
- Published: April 2024
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.
Praise for Iliana Regan's FIELDWORK:
“An intimate, passionate, and fresh perspective on the natural world and our place within it." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Regan’s latest work may very well surpass the critical success and praise of her debut in 2019. Her honesty is captivating, and her writing creates a tangible experience that is remarkable and unforgettable. This is a story many readers will not want to miss.” —Library Journal, starred review
“Poignant. . . Readers will be moved.” —Publishers Weekly
“In this heartfelt ode to the natural world, Regan lets the reader into her reality, exposing the messiness, beauty, and inescapable connection to the good, the bad, and the ugly that exists in food.” —Booklist
“Occasionally, a book appears like a shimmering treasure stumbled upon during a forest walk. This is certainly the case with Iliana Regan’s memoir Fieldwork. . . Regan’s exquisite, carefully planned prose paradoxically feels like a casual chat. . . With both Burn the Place and Fieldwork, Regan has earned her place as not only a world-class chef, but also a gifted memoirist.” —BookPage, starred review
“Regan excels where her love for the outdoors and her skill as a chef meet. She writes about nature—especially edible nature—with care and fervor. Her prose comes alive.” —The Washington Post
“Ravishing” —The Wall Street Journal
“[A] delicious memoir. . . . Touching and funny, Fieldwork explores gender identity, farm life, and Regan’s fascinating family heritage. Regan’s vibrant prose captures the unique joy of preparing food that you’ve picked yourself and contains wonderful descriptions of the mouthwatering dishes she creates from nettles, wildflowers, pine cones, and other natural delights. This candid feast of a book delighted both our hearts and our stomachs.” —Apple Books
“A poetic, mystical book.” —Newcity
“Equal parts naturalist, chef, and memoirist, Regan offers readers a candid account of how she found herself in the deepest parts of the northern forest, revelations of self appearing like morels after rain.” —LitHub
“Deftly weaving memories from Regan’s childhood growing up in rural Indiana with observations of her present as she starts a new life, this memoir is thoughtful and engrossing for anyone wanting to explore their connection to the natural world.” —Buzzfeed
“If you enjoyed Iliana Regan’s Burn the Place, you will love her compelling new memoir in which she explores how ancestry and nature interact to shape her life, from foraging and her culinary career to her gender identity and relationships.” —Ms. Magazine
“Fieldwork is a stunningly beautiful reflection on finding peace with our family history and the land we inhabit.” —The Chicago Review of Books
“After she and her wife, Anna, relocated to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Regan realized she was returning to the foraging culture of her Eastern European childhood and rural Indiana school years—but also the roots of her family history and gender identity. All of which makes this second memoir as rich as a mushroom ragout.” —The Los Angeles Times
"Fieldwork has much lyrical writing about mushrooms, forests, the wind, honoring the land and animals. But Regan… is at her best when she writes, with unflinching, trenchant honesty, about we, humans, with our stew of strengths, resilience, sadness, joys, addictions, and flaws." —The Washington Blade
“Suffused with a sense of yearning… Fieldwork moves between the past and the present, with Regan’s tender, almost magical way with wild food at its heart. . . . Read this book for Chapter 17 alone, a gorgeous set piece in which she gathers firewood late on a summer night.” —The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“How does Ilana Regan seamlessly connect the aroma of Cedar trees to devouring a delicious frozen custard? As a chef and lifelong forager, her relationship with Mother Nature began in childhood and extends all the way to her creation: The Milkweed Inn. In Fieldwork, Regan explores foods in their purest form and translates them to tasty dishes. She makes me want to go outside and start eating my own lawn and I could honestly listen to her talk about trees for years… Her writing is visceral and so inviting. Her life experience, unconventional yet so relatable. Pick up this book and start reading. You won’t stop until the last page.” —Alex Guarnaschelli, chef
“I found myself dreaming the entire read that I was walking behind Iliana through the woods she calls home and through her vivid, beautifully told recollections of the past. The perfect companion piece to Burn the Place.” —Scott Mosier, writer, director, and producer
“In fierce, tender prose, Fieldwork continues and deepens Iliana Regan's investigations of DNA, family, her body, and all things worth foraging in the natural world, revealing herself as one of that world's most lucid defenders.” —James McManus, writer, teacher, and poker historian
“Fieldwork is: you and the irreplaceable Iliana Regan, using bolt cutters to break into the dark barn of memory.” —Jesse Ball, prize-winning author of A Cure for Suicide
“Fieldwork is the second book by Iliana Regan and what a superb follow up it is to her highly acclaimed Burn The Place. This is not just a book about IIiana’s love of the forest and the things that reside in this magical place but it’s also an intimate reflection on what makes her who she is and with that we can fully relate.” —April Bloomfield, chef