Iliana Regan rose to national acclaim as a chef first. But when her 2019 memoir Burn the Place appeared on the National Book Award long list, she cemented her ambitions beyond the restaurant kitchen. In the years since, Regan moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opened an intimate inn in the middle of the forest, and left Elizabeth, the restaurant named for her late sister and known for its themed dinners. Regan’s second book, Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir, reflects these shifts.
Where Burn the Place focused in part on Regan’s time in restaurants, Fieldwork, out this month, is firmly rooted in the woods, whether it’s those that surround Milkweed (the bed and breakfast she runs with her wife Anna), the ones that were the setting for her rural Indiana childhood, or the Eastern European forests roamed by those relatives Regan never met, but have nonetheless left an unmistakeable imprint on Regan’s philosophies, culinary and otherwise. With each chapter, Regan seems to hunt for the threads that tie them all together. As she described the book on Milkweed’s Instagram: “More than being about foraging it is like foraging.”
Here, an excerpt from chapter six of Fieldwork, “Borowiki,” in which three generations imbue the Polish soup czarnina with the taste of the forest. — Monica Burton
We spilled the contents from our mesh sacks onto the cutting board island in our farmhouse kitchen, and I felt the excitement in my gut, like butterflies, the same way people said they felt about falling in love. I feel that way about the mushrooms. I thought about kissing them. Spread on our island, their smell was like the trees, dirt, earth, the beginning of time. I knew when we’d eat them, they’d taste like all those things too, plus better. Dad would always say the mushrooms tasted like steak because I don’t think he had any better ideas and he wasn’t wrong, but they tasted like everything on Grandpa Regan’s farm. They tasted like Grandpa Regan was going to live forever. They tasted like Busia. They tasted like how good it felt to be with all my family in the same room at once. They tasted like how Dad’s hands felt when he tickled my back at night before I went to sleep. They tasted like how I cried when Nina would sneak out to go on dates or be out with friends instead of staying home with me. They tasted like how my sisters felt when they used drugs. They tasted like the place where I grew up. They tasted like the land, like my body.
Borowiki means boletus in Polish. In late July Dad and I brought the borowiki to Mom. Borowiki, or boletus edulis, is a cousin of the porcini, which is a very nice mushroom to eat. If you look for them in a field guide, you’ll see “choice” printed next to edibility. I don’t think Dad has ever had a real porcini, but someday I’d like for him to have one. He always called the mushrooms by the name his grandmother, Busia, called them. I never met Busia, though I knew she was inside of me in the same way Wayne was.
Because we didn’t have them at the farmhouse, Dad and I hunted the borowiki at Grandpa Regan’s farm, about 30 miles south and 40 to the east. His farm was surrounded by pine, oak, birch, maple, and hemlock. He had one hundred acres in Medaryville, Indiana. He built the house before he was set to retire from the steel mill and his retirement gift to himself was to work himself on that farm as long as his bones would hold out. Sounded right and though I was just five at the time, I knew I was him too.
Mom sliced most of the borowiki into quarters and the smaller ones in half. When Dad and I hunted them, he told me to look near the bases of the largest pines, and specifically under the hemlocks. “See how this one has the branches in triplets, how they fan out like the chickens’ feet?” He placed his palm under one of the branches and held it there. The pads of his calloused palms were shiny beneath the hemlock needles. The branch looked like a peace sign on his palm. “See how these don’t have the needles going all around the stem but they’re sort of flat” — he pointed at them with the finger of his other hand — “and the needles just come off the sides?” I crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen adults do and held each elbow with the opposite hand. I squinted. “Yeah,” I said, but I don’t really think I saw what he thought I should see. “You gotta look under these trees or nearby ’em. That’s where they’ll be.” He continued walking, shuffling his boots over the sandy path. “Remember, the borowiki have pores under ’em, not gills. We don’t want any mushrooms with the gills, these ain’t like the meadows. These ones only got the sponge bottom and when you touch ’em they might bruise a little, but that’s okay.”
“Okay,” I said.
“All right, now you’re gonna find most of ’em ’cause you’re closer to the ground.” He always said that, but I think the truth was that he just couldn’t see that well behind his thick glasses. And I did find them; I found a whole bunch of them. Nice ones, too, and I knew because he said so. They were young and firm and not riddled with a bunch of holes. “Here’s how you check they’re good,” he said, grunting while he knelt. He pushed his glasses up his nose with the tip of his finger; his hair in the front hung over the rims. “Gimme your pocketknife,” he said. I dug it from my pocket. He opened it and ran his thumb over the blade. “Christ. This one’s sharp.” He looked at me. “Did I give you this one?” Before I could answer him, he said, “Never mind, take mine.” And he stretched up, digging into his pocket among the change and wadded-up tissue paper and produced his own. He set mine down then did the same with his — opened it and ran his thumb over it. “You take this one. It won’t cut you.” He put mine in his pocket. I probably wasn’t going to get cut. If fieldwork 98 anything was going to be dangerous, I knew, it was something he would do. He would get cut. It was always that way. But I said, “Okay,” and I took his pocketknife instead. He cut the borowiki at the base, then turned it upside down in his hand. He sat back, resting his hams on the heels of his boots, and showed me the bottom. “See here — clean, no holes. Touch it.” I did. He watched me. I looked at him. “It’s firm, yeah?”
“That’s a good one you found. You done real good. Keep finding ones like this. These ones are young and they’re good this way, not too buggy.”
After Mom cleaned and cut them, she set them aside. She was going to add them to duck blood soup. Czarnina. Mom liked to cook czarnina. She had always loved Busia and Busia had taught her, at the restaurant, how to make it. Dad and my sisters loved the czarnina too. I didn’t love that it was made from duck blood, so I just ate the mushrooms and noodles that Mom had put in it. I was a picky kid sometimes. But the borowiki was one of the most important ingredients in the czarnina. At least in my family’s recipe it was. The borowiki gave it the deep flavor of the forest. Busia could never get the czarnina exactly how she liked it when she was living in Gary, Indiana. Gary didn’t have the same terroir as her home, a village in northern Poland. But it was still good. Everyone loved her czarnina and they liked when Mom made it too. The people of Gary lined up after their shifts at the steel mill, outside Busia’s restaurant on the corner of 34th and Broadway that would later become Jennie’s Café. Busia’s was a long way away from the inn her family once had in Poland, though she still seemed to be a happy woman.
The inn where Busia grew up, and that her family kept, was in the middle of four hundred acres of green hills in the northern end of the temperate forest. Gardens were everywhere you looked and neatly arranged with cabbages and other brassicas, nightshades, leafy and succulent greens, Jerusalem artichoke flowers and marigolds, potatoes, squashes, peas, and beans. Tacked here and there, against trellises and up the logs of the inn, were vines full of grapes. Those and other vines also climbed with ferocity up the sides of the barn, which was set back from the inn about twenty yards. In late July the garden was mostly yellow. Big sunflowers hung their yellow heads, framing seedy faces. Nearby were small orchards of apple and pear whose fruits would be used for ciders, butters, and vinegars. Two longhouses sheltered draft horses and mules. Pigs occupied one pen that was sectioned off at the far end. The pigs were for fat, side meat, bones, sausages, bacon, and roasts, among other things. The goats and lambs, in another section, were mostly for roasting whole, or for their legs, while Busia’s father sold the racks, bellies, and shoulders to the butcher in town. But sometimes the tender racks were saved for special occasions, hung and gleaming, slippery with fat over the spit. The sheep were for wool — warm itchy sweaters and blankets — and their milk for cheese and one skinny cow provided milk as well. Chickens lined cages and roosters roamed free.
Between the longhouses was a large pit about two feet deep, three feet wide, and five feet long, where embers perpetually sizzled. Every couple of hours Busia fed it from the nearby stack of splintered logs. At each end of the pit were posts with a crank. The crank rotated the long spit suspended between the posts. Busia ran that spit through the animals and tied their legs at each side. She cut thin slices of garlic, layering them under the skin until they were carefully shingled as a rooftop. She used lots of salt to coat the animals, which guests appreciated; salt was an offering, a symbol of hospitality. She spun the animals for hours until the skin was dark and glistened like golden-and-brown-tinted, cracked glass over the rendered fat. The spinning caused the fat, blood, and water to leach out, ensuring a crispy skin with tender fat and succulent muscle tissue. The best part was the skin. When it fractured, the meat beneath was so soft, you could pull the muscle tissues free with your fingers. That meant it was done.
The inn was built from cedar logs bigger than you could wrap your arms around. The dimensions of the inn were forty feet wide, thirty feet deep, and thirty feet high. Knots twisted and turned creating natural designs on the walls. The roof reached near the tops of the maples if you included the attic loft. Busia and her younger sister, when they were little, told anyone who asked that they lived in the castle on top of the hill. Their father, Adam, like my own, said he was king of it. There were six rooms. One belonged to the sisters and another to their father who was widowed. Their mother’s clothes were still folded in the dresser drawers; her modest jewelry sat on a table in a small wooden bowl. They liked it that way. Sometimes, to feel her, they took her things and held them or they wore her necklaces or slipped into one of her house dresses at night. They stood at the window like she had, drinking tea made from dried turkey tail mushrooms, chaga, and bark. They embodied the figure they remembered. Lit by a single candle in the window, watching themselves as they looked out, pretending to see what their mother had — the roosters chasing them through the yard, feeding apples and clover to the horses, and gathering chicken eggs into baskets made from sweetgrasses.
A crack echoed. The wind came in from the north — the southernmost end of the boreal forest. The sound waves echolocated white oak, wild apple, gray pine, paper birch, hemlock, beech, mulberry, and silver-tipped maple. The wind pushed the echo into the valleys and bounced it along the surface of whitewater rivers. It spread across fields stubbled with yellow prairie grasses.
The echo stopped and stillness swarmed when Ginivive Skaczkowski — my great grandmother, Busia — stood there, holding a duck by his webbed feet, allowing the blood and the remnants of his esophagus to spill into a porcelain bowl below. The axe had sliced through the duck’s neck, shattering the nuggetshaped bones, and stopped at the rings of a walnut tree. The wood splintered under the axe, from where the crack had originated. Before she whacked off his head, she had made a slit at the back of it, cutting a major artery and allowing his blood to drain. It was best to drain the blood first before cutting off the head. The blood for czarnina needed to be clean, clear from any undigested food remaining in the throat.
By September, Busia would be gone for America as fast as the boreal breeze arrived. But for now, July was hot. The height of summer heat brought out the oils of the countryside’s life and death. Busia inhaled, smelling the decay of animals, leaves, mushrooms, clay, and rotted, massive tree trunks. In the yard, a few buttercup flowers held on like the duck’s body which now jolted headless in her grip. She walked through the grass, crushing the buttercups and if she looked at the right angle against the sun, beyond her shadow she saw the manufactured webs of tiny, female spiders that stretched one blade to the next. She was fond of these webs.
That summer she was 19 years old. She wore gray slacks held by suspenders over her dad’s gray shirt, collarless, with tiny iridescent pearl-like buttons up the front. Her brown leather work boots with cork soles rose to where her knees would someday ache. Her gold hair was a croissant, pinned on the top of her walnut-shaped head. A few strands framed her lean face. Her nose was the shape of an arrowhead and her eyes, a faded gray, were deep set and symmetrically spaced under her thick golden eyebrows. She was average height and rail thin, but stronger than she looked. Her rolled-up sleeves exposed thick forearms.
“Something like you,” Dad would say one day, telling me about her. But she was more interesting, I thought.
Moments before, she had scooped up the duck by his legs and held him in one fist. The duck’s feet made like they were swimming as she grabbed him. Now, they were a bouquet. Dirt accumulated in the creases of the wrinkled skin over his joints and between the petals of his feet. He quacked. He made a few other noises while his blue tipped wings went up and down, beautiful and shining.
Gentle but firm, she sliced the artery at the back of his neck and drained the blood, then she held his neck over the severed walnut bole she had climbed when she was young, when it was once a tree. With her other hand, she suspended the heavy axe in the air, then let it drop hard and precise, through the vertebrae running the duck’s neckline. His head plunked into the bowl, and she held him up, allowing the rest of the blood and contents to spill out.
The large porcelain bowl she used to collect the blood was delicately painted with pink roses and gold trim along the rim. The duck’s blood formed a dark red puddle, so dark it was like a bowl of ink for writing letters or making sketches, both of which she liked to do very much. Her slender fingers gripped the duck’s legs and he spasmed once more before death set in.
A green glass bottle of red wine that had turned to sour was next to the bowl. She added some of it to the blood to prevent clots. The smell of iron and acid was piercing; she could almost taste it as it settled in the ripples of her own esophagus. Just then, the whip of cool air blew in; it felt good, releasing the shirt stuck from sweat to her chest. She caught the scent of forest. She loved this smell. This meant the borowiki were here.
Rivulets of blood ran through the lines of her palms. She rinsed her hands in a pail of water only to stain them again as she picked up the duck’s head and cut out his tongue. She put the head in another bowl. She would save it for later and share the brains with her father and sister. The brains when roasted were very good. Then, into another pail she disemboweled the bird, its guts like oil paints of beige and maroon. She reserved the heart, gizzards, and liver. She’d use the tongue, heart, muscle meat, and blood for her czarnina. The carcass and feet, once she cleaned them, she’d disjoint with a cleaver, and this would be the soup’s base.
Back in the kitchen, Busia chopped a mound of garden and wild herbs: marjoram, oregano, savory, thyme, parsley, gooseberry, woodruff, burnet, spicebush berry, mountain ash, and nettle. She pushed the leafy fragments and berries onto the blade of her knife and used her finger to slide them into the soup. The czarnina was on its way.
Hung over the hearth fire was a cauldron, wide and deep. She pulled the duck’s tongue from the boiling broth of roasted bones, feet, herbs, twigs, barks, and flowers. She held the steaming tongue between her finger and thumb, unflinching. It was hot, but her fingers, knuckles, and palms were thick from heat and work. She had new scars on top of old scars from years of shoveling manure, pruning flowers, weeding gardens, chopping wood, killing animals, and foraging through thorny bushes. The tongue rested on her palm and the steam danced serpentine into the air. Using a small knife, she peeled away the tongue’s thick outer layer. This part was too tough to chew. The miniscule taste buds bled beads of water. She set the mollusk-like tongue on the counter, then sliced it in half. One of the halves she dipped into salt and ate. It was so good. The other she chopped into small pieces. It was not a lot, but still, she added it back in. She was true to her recipe, and where it was scribbled, half of a duck’s tongue, she meant it.
She worked on a wood block made from her father’s walnut grove. Adam was proud of her. He was also proud of his walnut grove. He went on and on to anyone who listened, much as his great-grandson would do someday. Adam had a scripted commentary on the trees’ height, usefulness, worth, and how his great-grandfather had planted them. He reminded Busia whenever she worked on it. “Made this block, even the table,” he said while rapping his knuckles against it, or giving it a little stroke as if it were a baby goat. She knew, so much so that eventually Dad would know, and I would know too, someday.
On this night, the czarnina was a deep ruby color. Duck breast, thick noodles, borowiki, sun-dried plums, wild apples, and onions were layered inside the bowl and fresh, chopped herbs were added over the top, making a large green mound just before she served it. The acoustics of the inn calmed when dinner was served. Walnut spoons scraped against walnut bowls, logs popped in the hearth, fat fell into a pan over the embers from a lamb leg spinning over the fire. No one said anything and Busia knew this meant it was good.
This was how she did it. It was how it had to be done. Mom tried to do it the same with the forest mushrooms we brought to her. The borowiki, emerging from the networks below, mingling with the trees’ roots, acting as conduits, and transcending time from Poland all the way to our farmhouse kitchen; they were the most important part.
Excerpted from FIELDWORK by Iliana Regan. Published by Agate Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Iliana Regan. All rights reserved. CAUTION: Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.