The Way We Get By: Varsity Has Gotten Really Good at Identifying Mushrooms

Frontwoman Stef Smith talks foraging in the wilds of the Chicago suburbs.

I’ve been getting out into nature and taking really long walks in the forest, spending pretty much half a day in the woods with no plan. That’s been really nice. Part of that is, I’ve been learning more about identifying plants, like mushrooms. My boyfriend’s really into it too, and has been learning a lot about it and can tell me what it is that we’re finding.

I live in Chicago and we just go out to the ‘burbs. I don’t want to say where — you just have to make sure that it’s legal to forage, basically. There’s a ton of stuff growing right now, and it’s so fun to find. If you keep going back over and over again to the same woods, you get really familiar with what’s new and popping up and in season. You kind of build a relationship with the woods. 

It’s morel season, but we haven’t found any yet — that would be super special. It’s really hard to find. Any time you find a mushroom, it’s actually pretty exhilarating. Today we found a chicken of the woods, which is a huge, bright orange mushroom that grows on dead or dying logs. You can eat it, and it’s supposed taste like chicken, or have the texture of it. We’re gonna try to fry it like fried chicken later. It’s always fun to find a mushroom, especially if it’s an edible one we can identify. 

We’ve also found wild garlic. Garlic is one of those plants that when they’re wild, they grow everywhere. I think wild garlic is actually considered invasive. Once you find it and know what it looks like, you’ll see it everywhere, and you’ll start to smell it everywhere. It looks like a cross between chives on the top and a white onion on the bottom. We haven’t cooked with it yet, but a lot of people say it’s good in pesto, so I think we’re going to make pesto, or just put it in eggs or something. We were eating it raw and it just tastes like a really mild chive. It’s really good actually. 

We found some nettles and cooked those a couple weeks ago, and those were really, really good. It really hurts if you get stung by a nettle, but if you cook them in butter, the sting goes away. They soak up the butter and — I can’t even describe what they taste like. They’re definitely better than spinach. They’re really delicious, and they’re super good for you. I’m learning a lot about the properties of these plants and a lot of them are really good for you and have high levels of calcium, or vitamin A. So we found a bunch of nettles today, and we’re going to make a tincture with them. 

Going into the forest and foraging and being in nature has been a pretty big part of my life for the last couple years. My boyfriend and I started this tincture company, so it’s part of that — learning about herbalism. After quarantine, I can’t imagine it going back to feeling super safe around a lot of people. There’s going to be this weird transition phase, so I feel like taking hikes and stuff like that will still be a safe solitary activity we can do to break up the monotony of being alone in the city. 

Varisty’s Fine Forever is out today via Run For Cover Records. 

Varsity came to fruition one night in 2013 when several Chicago musicians gathered for a “salon night” where friends shared stories and songs. Singer-keyboardist Stephanie Smith was set to perform solo, but was quickly drawn to the sound of guitarists Dylan Weschler and Pat Stanton and asked them to join her. Shortly after their first performance as a trio, they recruited Jake Stolz on drums and his brother, Paul Stolz, on bass to fully round out their sound and become the quintet that they are today. Varsity played shows in the Chicago area the following year and spent one weekend at Chicago’s Public House Studio to record their debut self-titled LP released in March 2015.

Varsity has since found success in the growing indie-pop space. The powerful driving vocals of singer/keyboardist Stephanie Smith over infectious guitar melodies and exciting rhythm has them frequently sharing bills with artists including American Wrestlers, Alvvays, Courtney Barnett, The Hold Steady, and Car Seat Headrest. The band has further explored and developed their sound across a variety of digital releases—often two complementary singles at a time —that have earned rave reviews and a growing audience with millions of plays on YouTube and Spotify.

(Photo Credit: Alexa Viscius)