How I Finally Learned to Love Mushrooms

A lot has happened since Iliana Regan’s first memoir,

Burn the Place, was released. The Michelin-starred chef was named to the National Book Award longlist for nonfiction in 2019, the first for a culinary writer since Julia Child, nearly 40 years earlier. She was referred to as the Greta Thunberg of the culinary world by Kim Severson of The New York Times. Regan moved, with her wife Anna, into a remote log cabin near Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest and created an immersive culinary destination, Milkweed Inn. And she completed another memoir, Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir, about her life and heritage as a forager that spans her family history, her childhood, and her time at Milkweed Inn today. In this exclusive excerpt from her new memoir, she recounts one of the first times she went foraging for mushrooms with her father. Here is a passage from Chapter 4, titled “Meadow Mushrooms,” from Fieldwork, out in January 2023.


On this day, the day that Mom canned the peaches, things were more or less normal. No one was fighting yet, no rain, and boots had been taken off at the back door. So far. I waited, practicing patience, because Mom said we must do one thing at a time. I sat on the kitchen floor. Soon, she would scrub it again. The tiles were like a tessellation and many of these spear-like shapes had come undone. We kept all the loose tiles in a wicker basket beneath the bar counter in the kitchen. In a nook, between two stools where the wicker basket was, I picked out the tiles and, matching each shape, put them back in the spots where they fit best. Mom said if I was going to do that then I should Superglue them, because Dad would never get around to really fixing them with the grout and everything they’d need to stay secure. My dexterity, though decent, we knew wasn’t good enough that I could handle Superglue without every limb being stuck together until I formed my own shell, so I knew she must have been being passive-aggressive and just wanted to complain about him. I didn’t have those exact words for it at the time, but I knew what it meant when adults said stuff like that. I knew she wouldn’t give me the Superglue though I looked at her excitedly when she said it.

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From left, Elizabeth (Bunny) Regan, Iliana Regan, and Nina Regan and the farmhouse, c. 1979

Iliana Regan

At my side were the Russian nesting dolls, which I loved to handle. Mom always said, “Be careful with them,” as I held the round wooden things, painted as ladies with aprons and woven dresses. What could I do that was uncareful? I undid them, then did them again. Fitting each woman perfectly inside the next. I imagined the small ones were the babies, myself, and my sisters. I told Mom who was who and she smiled. I matched each line of apron or hand or whatever it was that was sliced through the hourglass shape of painted lime tree and put them back together. What I didn’t know was that I was also matching fingerprints: mine over Mom’s over her sister’s and her mother’s and her mother’s mother. The dolls were heirlooms. If you took iron particles and dusted them with a brush over the dolls, you’d see the rings of each tree, splintered at each generation, with new DNA, stories, ideas, passions, knowledge, trauma, pain, recessive and dominant traits. That’s what those dolls were all about. I just didn’t know it then.

Mom watched me fit them together. I felt her eyes anchor into me, analyzing how it made sense this strange child came out of her so many years later than all the others. She concluded without thinking about it too much that it was because she was tired, and hadn’t had the energy to say no and then comfort Dad through the rejection. It was easier just to give in. She loved us, though. She does. Seriously, she does.

The back porch’s screen door creaked open on unoiled hinges, then made a snapping sound. Dad shouted a cluster of bad words and ended it with, “fucking door.” Mom pressed her hands to the edge of the sink, sighed, and—I didn’t see, but I was sure—rolled her eyes. I watched her, holding the dolls in my lap.

“Maybe the hinges need to be fixed like I said back in May?” she said loud enough for him to hear in the next room. Without having to see him, I knew he wasn’t listening and instead was fixating on the door. He wrestled the flimsy door off its frame and set it on the side of the house by the hose, beneath the bathroom window. Before he got to us, he must have shaken off his frustration because when he got to the kitchen he said, “Mmm, the peaches smell good.” He added, “Apples are next.”

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Iliana Regan in kindergarten.

Iliana Regan

“I know,” Mom said unenthusiastically, but that wasn’t how she truly felt. She loved when we pressed the apples for cider. How everyone came over that following Christmas and drank the cider after it had gotten full of fizz and alcohol, sour and sweet at once. “Country champagne,” Dad called out, handing out glasses and bottles. But it wasn’t country champagne. It was overly sweet and gave you excruciating headaches. I know because I drank some too.

“Came in to get this guy,” he said, lifting me into the air by my armpits and setting me on my feet. While he held me midair, the steel toe of his boot struck the nesting dolls, scattering them beneath the stove. The worn heels of his boots, caked with soil and manure, crunched the tiles I had fitted back into where they were missing. He ruined the puzzle.

“Okay, go now,” Mom said, her eyes resting on the disemboweled nesting dolls and the mud that had fallen out of what little tread was left on his boot. All the dung the outside held sat there in a V-shape where a kitchen tile should have been. If she didn’t clean it, who knows what would have grown there? She knew she had to clean it. She had to.

He shoved my boots on.

“Meadow mushrooms are in the yard. Let’s go hunting.”

Our yeasty farmhouse was carbonated like a jar of sauerkraut that needed to be burped, always on the brink of explosion. That old place had its own central nervous system. It flushed out its systems below the ground with things we did that didn’t serve it, and pushed up the things that did. The xylem in the mulberry tree pulled up the rainwater from near the top of the slope where its roots went down under the ditch out front, where the hazelnuts were, and the water coursed through all the limbs, exiting through the millions of mouths on the undersides of its leaves, because the roots were capillaries and the garden pulsed like kidneys and the trees breathed like lungs and the gland-like fruits on the cherry tree shone like ornaments under lights, heavy and low, and when they pulled the branches down I could pick most of them. The peaches were fuzzy like arm hair and the raspberries were tiny beating hearts because the farmhouse was alive.

Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir

Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir

Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir

Past the stubbly field and at the rear of the barn, the horses made noises by clicking their shod hooves in the dirt, clip clop, clip clop. The pigs grunted. In the yard, chickens clucked. A rooster aimed to peck my toes. When Mom took me outside with the damp sheets that she hung out to sun dry, she’d set me in the laundry basket so the rooster couldn’t get me. She said, “He thinks those toes are corn kernels.” I wasn’t one for expressing myself, but I tried out, “He’s an asshole.” I wasn’t wrong because once he drew blood. I didn’t like being around him, he was too unpredictable. But I got reprimanded and Mom said she was going to wash my mouth out with soap. Later she took me upstairs to the same bathroom where my sister would sneak out that window and took the bar of soap from the counter and told me to put it in my mouth. I looked at her, catching myself in the long mirror behind the sink and the whites underneath the green of my eyes shone with tears. “Do it,” she said, and I put the bar of soap in my mouth. It didn’t taste too bad, so I kept it there, and then she had to wrestle me to get it back out. I was fine eating the fucking soap.

After a good summer rain, the meadow mushrooms sprouted out from the wild grasses in our yard. I didn’t know it then, but those were sex organs. White dots on a green canvas, they came in all sizes. The undersides of the caps were lined with gills that looked the same as a fish’s gills. We moved slow, being sure to collect every single one. We sliced them at their chunky stems with our pocketknives. I used the knife Dad gave me. He gave me the dull one since he thought I’d cut myself. Over the years he’d give me hundreds more pocketknives, each time telling me, “Be careful, that’s sharp.” When we brought the mushrooms inside, Dad had us check the spores by conducting a test, he said to make sure they were edible. First, we used a damp cloth to wipe off any grass or soil from them. Then we set them on a sheet of paper for several hours after which we checked the imprint for the color. In this case, they were good.

Mom got out the cast-iron skillet and warmed it over the propane burner she’d set on the cutting board island. She added a knob of butter. When the butter got frothy, she added the sliced mushrooms. Meadow mushrooms were close to perfect. Not as good as morels, boletus, chanterelles, or even hen of the woods, but good enough that farmers replicated them in manure beds and mediums of the like to sell to stores as white button mushrooms. These were better than the kind you got at the store; their bloodlines ran under our farm for who knows how far. Probably as far as forever.

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Iliana Regan pretending to be a puppy begging for watermelon from her mother at the farmhouse, c. 1979.

Iliana Regan

They existed all year beneath the soil, grass, and seeds. They endured the harsh midwestern freezes and thawed into soggy sponges in the spring. The summer heat and rain drove them to fruit. In the fall, they emerged one or two or more times before going dormant for the winter. They thrived above our well and suffered over the septic. Their membranes spread in thin white strands, too thin for our eyes to see. Even when we made mud pies, we didn’t notice them. After tasting the mud pie, though, we could detect that subtle, savory quality that kept us craving our land. Because of that, I’d always want that land, forever. I still do.

Close by were the rows of cedars whose root systems ran near the mulberries and hazelnuts to the north of the ditch, over and back around to the cherry and peach trees, where eventually Dad would set up the Japanese beetle traps and spray the trees with pesticides as if he were the one flying the Agent Orange over the eastern jungles, spraying them within an inch of their lives, taking out so many things in the process. Still the mushrooms endured. Their intricate webbed systems cleared the farmhouse and met up again in the backyard near the apple and pear trees. They swung down under the clothesline, which I walked under, along the shadows pretending I was a tightrope walker in the circus. I held out my arms like a semaphore, trying to catch my balance, signaling messages to my future self that said, remember this.

Under the electric fence they burrowed deeper. Underneath the tilled soil of the garden they shifted toward the barn and around the foundation to the back, where in the last stall of the lean-to against the pole barn sat a large pile of manure where Dad grew shiitake mushrooms from spores he’d bought from a catalog. Sometimes they grew and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes even the meadow mushrooms showed up there. Dad said it was from their spores being carried in the wind.

Together in the barn, he showed me the fungus. I stood beside him with my hands in my pockets where I had a couple of arrowheads. I rubbed them with my thumb. He used a spade to pull up a fine layer of manure. At this point the mash of soil and manure and whatever else he’d put in there didn’t smell so bad. But when he turned it over, a sinister aroma rose. A yellow and white film coated the lumpy mass. The fibers of the white against the brown were no more visible than dandelion or milkweed gone to seed, stuck in the moist soil. It was fuzzy.

Where shiitake had come up, he clipped the fruited bodies. They were ready when the caps darkened at the top and fanned out into hues of violet, purple, and light brown around their edges. He liked them to be at least the diameter of a half dollar and pulled a coin from his pocket to measure, along with various tissues, empty seed packets, pennies, nickels, quarters, and dander. He held the coin against the mushroom caps. “These ones are ready,” he said. He harvested a pound’s worth and I proudly carried some back to the kitchen in my cupped hands. After twenty minutes he had the mushrooms sliced thin with iceberg lettuce we grew in the garden. He fixed us two bowls of Maruchan ramen. To my bowl he added the fresh, sliced mushrooms, lettuce, and one egg yolk. I watched the egg whites drip through his thick fingers. Then he opened his hands to my bowl and let the yolk slide down to his fingertips before he released it in the center of my bowl. He added a spoonful of Kikkoman soy sauce and a drop of fermented chili paste he made from the tiny red chilies in the garden.

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Iliana Regan and her father, 2021.

Iliana Regan

That first night I puked it happened again, several times. I heard the angry whispers from my parents in the kitchen. There was an interrogation by Mom.

“What did you feed her?”

“Same thing I always do.”

“But there must have been something different.”

“No. Same thing I always do.”

“The mushroom sack wasn’t in its spot.”

“So?”

“So? Did you feed her the shit mushrooms?”

“Fuck you.”

I also had a fever dream that night, but it was one I’d had before a bunch of times, a reoccurring one. We were out walking the field, Nina, her boyfriend Devin, and me. We were searching for mushrooms again, beyond the pole barn and lean-tos, further than where the horses ever went. Out here, beyond the fences, paddocks, and pens, was an overgrown midwestern prairie. I saw an Indigenous person on a horse. I’d seen him so many times I no longer knew if it was a dream or real. We had climbed the fence to get back there, and the pigs came up to us so that we could scratch their prickly heads. Nina joked, “Hopefully Dad fed them or they’re gonna eat us.” All of us knew that. He warned us, repeatedly, that if the pigs were hungry, we’d be their dinner. But this pink one with brown spots, after I scratched her head, jutted out her chin so I could rub the needly hair on the underside of her jaw. She flopped down onto her side and lifted her back leg, exposing her massive belly and nipples like little garden hoses. I scratched her belly. She was like a four-hundred-pound dog. In the dream I always cried a little as I pet her, knowing Dad was going to kill her. April, Nina’s goliath horse, came over with her angel-white hair and mane, the sun behind her shooting out light in geometric designs. The sky was periwinkle, and the clouds were melted marshmallows. Grasshoppers flittered above the pointed grasses, crickets jumped, and some ants flew around, still with their wings—prior to mating—while the more mature ones formed colonies in sand dunes beneath our feet. Butterflies caught prisms on the edges of their wings and other flying insects buzzed next to our heads. Mosquitoes bit up my legs. Bats roosted in the top of the barn, waiting for night to fall. When it did, they swayed their shoulders like kayakers on a river up into the sky.

And in this dream, Nina and I walked ahead of Devin. He straggled behind, taking in the view. He was gentle in that way. He was the sort of guy who stopped to look at the pretty flora and fauna. He pointed them out to me. First, the purple daisies and then the goldenrod, followed by the aster flowers and buttercups that blended into one purple and yellow show for the ultimate pollinating attraction. This made me like him more, enough to include him over and over in this dream. Devin wasn’t weirded out by me. Sometimes at night, he and Nina cuddled in her bed and when I brought in my doll that was nearly big as me and we were all in our underwear, I said, “My girlfriend is going to cuddle too,” and he was okay with that. Plus, he never frightened me even when I was almost naked. He was a kind person.

The prairie stretched out for five more acres. Near the horizon was a big hill that separated our yard from whatever empty land was behind it, then further beyond that we knew was the old highway, US 30. We never went past that hill, though. But out there was where I saw the man on his horse, on top of the hill. Before I could say anything, my legs buckled; Dad had cut me off at the knees because I’d turned into a mushroom. He collected me into his mesh sack. I bolted awake and reached for my kneecaps. My legs were still there.

Not long ago I asked Nina if this had happened for real. If we were once really out there with Devin. If we all saw the Indigenous man together. She said anything was possible but didn’t remember. She didn’t remember the man on the horse. But even if she couldn’t confirm it, whether it was real or a dream, I remembered him perfect with his hair, long and shiny, so dark it was violet in the sun. He wore a colorful bandana around his neck. His chest was bare under a soft leather vest. He had on tan pants that also looked like they were made of animal hide. Long fringe ran down each side. His bare feet rested in the stirrups. He was more beautiful than any woman, with a wide jaw and sage-tinted skin. And each time, whether real or not, we saw each other and it was the same; we froze, and silence followed. A crack in time. A crack in the tree.

Reprinted with permission from Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir by Iliana Regan, Agate, January 2023.

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Source : Esquire