Trying to explain Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir yields an exercise in lists: the places and people Iliana Regan has rooted herself to, (mis)adventures in childhood and the height of the pandemic, the forest creatures roaming near the remote Michigan cabin she shares with her wife, items she’s foraged (edible and otherwise). At its core, though, Fieldwork is about mushrooms and time travel.
Mushrooms constitute roughly half of the main cast of Regan’s memoir—among others, the “fairy tale” fly agarics frolic in the background of stories in her family’s farmhouse, and the enigmatic lobster mushroom propels the whole narrative forward. This unique grounding allows Regan to explore various moments from her own life and those of her parents and grandparents—including moments taking place long before her birth—in nuanced ways but using a light touch.
Like many contemporary memoirs, Fieldwork includes interpersonal and intergenerational trauma and pain. However, Fieldwork never builds a house of trauma and moves in. Instead, the book camps in the open air. Even to those unfamiliar with Regan’s background as a self-trained chef, restauranteur, and co-owner of a culinary-focused inn could detect that this is an author in love with food, and many of the experiences she describes center on food: family meals, foraging for ingredients to prepare for guests, and, often, the dearth of those forage-able items because of manmade encroachments. This loss is one she feels as keenly for the forest-dwelling animals and insects as herself.
The time travel, like the mushrooms, weaves itself throughout the book; readers move from 2020 Michigan to 1984 Indiana to early 20th century Poland and back again. The book’s primary locus in the past is Lake County, where Indiana readers will find delight in readily identifying the places and events Regan describes: Merrillville and Gary, Deep River Park, and the Lake County Fair.
Though her prose is distinct from his, Regan has a Kurt Vonnegut-esque relationship to time. She comes unstuck at the sight of a boletus mushroom or the smell of wild strawberries. Sometimes she signposts the jumps, but other times we step through an invisible portal, and it takes the reader a moment to adjust to their new surroundings. The shifts, though, are never jarring because the book dwells on communing—with flora and fauna, family, and the whole of earth and sky.
Fieldwork is a book that isn’t afraid to mire itself in the soil, to ruminate on the past and how to construct a life. The prose is anxious about deforestation and aging bodies, but it is never anxious about loving people despite their flaws and caring for the natural world.
Much like her symbolic hunt for lobster mushrooms, Regan is searching for something she may never find. But she’ll take readers on this quest that reads like a long conversation: meditative, lush, and generous. You’re free to exit the trip at any time, but Regan will still be there, offering a mushroom or mulberry, asking you what you see.
B. Tyler Lee is a poet and essayist whose work focuses often on food, parenthood, queerness, and spirituality. She is the author of one poetry chapbook, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Red Bird Chapbooks), and her writing appears in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has lived in Porter County for the past 13 years, a dozen of which were spent teaching English in the Purdue Northwest system. She now serves as a grant writer for a healthcare nonprofit. More of her work may be found at btylerlee.com.
Merillville native and Indiana University Bloomington graduate, Iliana Regan is a self-taught chef. She is the founder and owner of the Michelin-starred “new gatherer” restaurant Elizabeth in Chicago and of Milkweed Inn, a farm and bed and breakfast located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her cuisine highlights her midwestern roots and the pure flavor of the often foraged ingredients of her upbringing. A James Beard Award and Jean Banchet Award nominee, Regan was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2016.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.