IN BRIONY'S KITCHEN
FROM FEBRUARY/MARCH 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Briony Smith, an online writer and editor who does not cook – ever – undertakes a 24-hour family chili, developed by her grandfather in a Thai POW camp. While she stirs, she explains what it’s like to be a flashpoint for internet trolls and all that eats them
Briony Smith lives over an autobody shop in Parkdale with her musician boyfriend, Ben. Their apartment is filled with plants and art and two larger-than-life cats. Briony is a fashion writer, YouTuber, former celebrity wrangler, an admin for various online communities and, like all creatives working today, a hustler.
She speaks quickly and acrobatically, leaping into stories, deftly leaving a trail of words behind her like a drunken thesaurus dropping adjectives in its wake. Her online work has drawn the attention of both fans and trolls, whose barrage of insults and slurs over the past six months have become so hateful that her emotional and physical well-being have suffered. Her crime? She’s not a size zero.
Briony grew up in West Vancouver, where she was well fed on “bland white-people heritage foods” by her English parents. “I go home and just eat a million meats, and they’re like, ‘Don’t put the gravy boat in front of Briony. She’ll drink all of it.’”
Today she is having me over for chili that she prepared the previous day because it takes 24 hours before it can be served. Before we sit down to eat, we have to make rice. “I’ve never been a good cook,” she says, regarding a massive bag of Calrose and a quarter-cup measure. Briony’s hair, a dyed dove-grey with undertones of periwinkle, and her bright red lipstick combine to give her skin a pale translucence. In her black tube dress with sequin appliqués, her quizzical face pondering the mysteries of rice cookery, there’s an early Cyndi Lauper vibe about her. I hold out my hand for the measuring cup, indicating I’ll make the rice. She happily relinquishes it.
“I’ve always been a pretty busy person,” she tells me, pulling a giant pot of chili from the fridge in her cluttered, homey kitchen. “After I left university, I was always working full-time and freelancing on weekends and after work, plus I used to be dating all the time. So to have to come home and spend a few precious moments cutting up things and making food and then it tastes like shit, I was like, this is not a useful use of my time. So instead of being a good person and learning how to get better I just literally did not cook for the next nine years of my life. And everyone’s like, ‘Never?’ And I’m like, ‘Never – ever.’”
Briony cites Grand Electric, a Greek place nearby called GyroBar! Souvlaki Kitchen and a Thai Palace on Roncesvalles as favourites for takeout. The only recipe she has in her repertoire is a vegetarian lasagna. This is her first time making chili. “I have to take pictures for my dad. He calls it pain-in-the-ass chili because it takes a long time to make.” Her grandfather, a World War II vet who was held for a time in a Thai POW camp, came up with the recipe and it’s been a Smith family staple ever since.
“It’s very complicated, reducing and boiling and stirring and putting the chili powder in the rendered fat or whatever. I made it for the first time yesterday. It pretty much took all day. I think it’s pretty good. We’ll see.” Her gigantic orange cat, Aslan, jumps down onto the table from the top of the bookshelf, where he’s been hiding.
While the rice cooks and the chili reheats we talk about her latest visit to the doctor. “I have to go on old-people medication to bring my heart rate down because I’m living in a constant state of stress,” she says. She is on two different pills for hypertension and a beta blocker to slow her heart rate.
“You’re 36 and you’re on heart medication? What’s the average age for someone on those meds?” I ask her.
She smirks, “Old as shit.”
The stress comes from two seemingly innocuous places – a Facebook trading group and a pop-culture show that wrapped two years ago. Briony’s Teeny Tiny Talk Show ran on YouTube during her tenure as Flare’s senior culture editor. It has gained 20,000 views since its final video was posted, and a number of those viewers are internet trolls.
Their insults lean heavily on those old chestnuts beloved by trolls: the “fat whale” and “fat c-nt.” The messages are peppered with hate speech, slut shaming and accusations of racism.
“I honestly think it has to do with the rise of misogyny right now [among] mainly white men who feel empowered and excited to rip a chunk out of women who they think are telling them what to do. It’s a real fun pastime with them.”
Her admin work for Bunz Trading Zone on Facebook is another portal through which trolls direct their venom her way.
I ask her what motivates them. “That’s something I think about a lot. I try to focus on that, rather than the sadness or hurt that I feel about people saying really horrible things to me.”
Briony has seen a spike in nasty comments and messages over the past six months, and even more in the last three. She’s been dealing with angry people and their comments for years, but not like this. She recently went to Greece on assignment and posted a photo. “I’ve always been pro posting hardcore bathing suit pics. I like that I’m curvy. That’s what I look like. And someone left a comment, some stranger saying I’m fat. It definitely jacks my heart rate up a bit every time I open up the browser and have 10 new notifications. Is it just going to be a new item for sale or someone telling me I’m disgusting?”
The rice is cooked and Briony dishes it out onto blush-pink plates. She ladles the chili overtop. There are two types of chili in the world: the almost dry, meat-forward kind that you can cut with a knife, and the sloppier, more tomato-centric style. The Smith family chili is definitely the former, and it is delicious. All those hours of stirring and reducing have paid off. This is not a timesaver for the harried home cook; it demands patience and effort. I’m not surprised a former POW came up with the recipe.
As we garnish with sour cream and grated cheese I ask the question that’s been plaguing me. We all have to eat to live, and Briony is being inundated with hate speech around body image that she can’t really fight back against. How can she eat with any sense of calm, without feeling constantly attacked and criticized?
“I worked in fashion for a long time, which is not a super place for curvy people.” Still, she says, she never really internalized any fat shaming until recently. She feels as if, for the first time in her life, the haters are getting through.
And it’s putting her life in jeopardy, as her doctor’s visit made clear. In an effort to stave off a heart attack brought on by stress, she has taken some time off from doing her admin work, and she’s trying to order less takeout and cook more at home.
We’re sitting on her couch now, overlooking the tail end of Queen West. Two large paintings dominate the space, one in the living room and one in the kitchen, both by Georgina Lee Walker, depicting the Canada Malting factory. “They work well with these biscuit-coloured walls,” Briony says, describing the paint colour perfectly. Sculptures of mutant lambs, by Megan Bogonovich, are displayed in a glass case behind her.
“Writing in and calling me a fat slut, that’s on the personal level. And then on the macro level you read about Trump and how he behaves and how that filters down. The rise of Jordan Peterson. The rise of incel. That’s just misogyny. You need to figure out the balance of fighting the good fight and still believing in the good in people while also taking a step back and choosing not to engage.
“I’ve been called a man-hater lots of times,” she says, incredulous. “I love dudes, I love action movies, I slept around a lot. I’m definitely not a man-hater, but I could easily become one. You men are all lucky we’re not out stabbing you in the street every moment of your life. You should be happy there’s not a knife sticking out of your gut right now with blood pouring out of your kidneys. Or whatever.”
She takes me into the bedroom to show off her shoeboxes of beauty products from her time at Flare and describes the double standard she faced while working in fashion.
“I’ve had bosses tell me to cover up, where co-workers would be wearing literal underwear at the office. There’s definitely a low-key hum of ‘you need to be skinnier.’”
I argue that the hum is loud, and it is everywhere, a social tinnitus that just won’t go away, that we’re supposed to deal with by ignoring it. She nods. Her other cat, a giant puffball named Sookie, struts by, tail in the air. “This is not a cute thing to do to people. Especially people who are not teeny tiny. If you want to be concerned about me, be concerned about my shitty eating habits and my heart trouble, not that I can’t wear bias-cut silk dresses.”
Smith family chili
makes 6 servings
1 large frying pan at least 2 inches deep
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lb regular ground beef
1 medium onion, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
10 tablespoons chili powder
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 16-ounce can red kidney beans
Put frying pan on medium-high heat. Add one tablespoon oil and swirl to coat. Add ground beef, onions and garlic to pan and mix well to prevent sticking or burning.
As the frying beef begins to release water and fat, sprinkle chili powder over the meat and stir well.
If mixture is sticking add a bit more olive oil or a scant 1⁄4 cup of water to loosen.
Cook the bejesus out of the mixture for a minimum of one hour, stirring pretty much every 3 to 5 minutes.
After 1 hour, add tomatoes and kidney beans and let it simmer for 1 hour. If it’s sticking, add some water. Then put it on very low heat and simmer it forever.
Your objective is to boil off almost all the water, leaving a chili that, when plated, does not seep any visible liquid and is on the dry side.
For best results, let the mixture cool down, then place in fridge for 24 hours. Reheat and serve hot over white basmati rice or at room temperature on crackers.
From start to finish takes a minimum 4 hours. If you need a smoke or a “why did I start this f-cking chili” break, take the mixture off the heat. Otherwise you will burn it.