In 2003, a security guard from Kermit, West Virginia, named Robert Ward was driving to work when he lost control of his 1985 Ford, plunged 150 feet into a snowy gulch and broke his hip. For the next six and a half days, he kept himself alive by eating snow as well as by some clever car foraging; for all of you who hold on to your wrinkled packets of fast food sauces to the unending consternation of friends and family, Mr. Ward's discovery of a treasure trove of them under his seat is the kind of “I told you so” story you've been waiting for.
But it has also become the inspiration for a one-act, one-man play by the supremely witty writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl (Mystery Science Theater 300, Cinematic Titanic), called appropriately enough, Man Saved By Condiments! To find out how Pehl turned Ward's interesting way of skirting tragedy into a theatrical experience and the Kickstarter campaign that will fund it, turn the page.
SI: What was it about Robert Ward's experience that called out to you? Be specific.
MJP: It spoke to me personally about that intersection of my own issues about food, untidiness and being trapped somewhere without food. I just tried to imagine what that scenario was like for him.
SI: What kind of research, if any, did you do before writing Man Saved By Condiments!?
MJP: When I wrote the play it was maybe 2004, 2005 and I couldn't locate Robert Ward via e-mail. So I sent out snail mail letters to every Robert Ward in that general vicinity [and I found him]. We ended up exchanging a few e-mails and he told me a little bit more about the incident. A lot of the play, though, is honestly just an extrapolation about what it would be like to be in that situation.
MJP: He wasn't especially articulate about the incident. He reiterated what the [news reports] had said and that he was scared. He thought he'd be okay for a while but on the sixth day he decided, more or less, that that was it. It just so happened that on this day one of his friends who had been out looking for him actually stumbled upon him.
SI: Sticking empty fast food bags beneath your car seat sounds like part sloth, part shame. What did Ward do for a living?
MJP: He was a security guard at a nearby mine in West Virginia. He was also a volunteer emergency medical technician. He actually had his manual in the car with him and he started burning pages to keep warm. You have to give him credit. I would have just immediately thought, [despairing wail] “It's over!”
SI: Thinking you are going to starve to death then discovering sustenance must render a simple sachet of yellow mustard into something dizzyingly delicious.
MJP: Here's one of the things I thought about: If you haven't eaten for some time and you would taste the condiment in a new way, you would actually taste what it tastes like. In our food environment, you can really get desensitized to what food actually tastes like. You don't take time to discern flavors. You are just trying to sate a hunger.
SI: What condiments are discovered in Man Saved By Condiments!? Ketchup, mayo, mustard…
MJP: … Arby's horsey sauce. Also one of the things that he discovers — and Robert Ward confirmed this for me — is a leftover jar of peanut butter that is mostly empty but he was able to get the rest of it out. This amused me to no end.
SI: Mary Jo? Peanut butter isn't really a condiment. It's a food paste, a sandwich spread. Were any other establishments besides Arby's represented in the play?
MJP: I did research on what fast food restaurants would be in that area and figured out what they would offer. Naturally, there were ketchup packets, mayonnaise, hot sauce, just about every manner of condiment. Everywhere I went during my research [phase] I would see if they had condiment packets on the tables and grabbed a bunch to inform my writing.
SI: Did you taste the condiments? Did you figure out what companies make the tastiest product?
MJP: No. The other thing that cracked me up was that I was watching the video for the Kickstarter campaign and the actor [playing the Robert Ward character], Tim Uren, actually opens up a package of mayo and eats it and that just grossed me out. And I wrote the play.
SI: What if the play is a huge success and ends up having a long run? Is there any condiment Mr. Uren could do without?
MJP: I spoke to him not too long ago and there's a condiment that he absolutely loathes. He knows he will have to surmount that to be in this show. He said he's had a long history with ketchup, that he was in a production called Macbeth's Awesome Scottish Castle Party in which other actors dipped kielbasa into ketchup on his head. He said, “Ketchup is haunting me. Professionally.”
SI: You've written books and for TV. Is this your first one-man show?
MJP: That was the challenge for me: To write a solo show for someone else and a male. The play has already been mounted for a few showings in 2005 at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was a little bit abstract: All we saw was the car bench, the steering wheel, and the trash and it was really exaggerated. In one of the articles I read about Robert Ward they described his [truck] as “a bachelor car — it catches a little bit of everything.” I tried to convey that. When it was produced they really heightened that trash experience. That was the setting for it. It's more or less a monologue that is brought to life by sound cues and acting. I am so excited to see Theatre Arlo's interpretation.
SI: Will your Mystery Science Theater 3000 super-villain character Pearl Forrester greet people on the way in?
MJP: Not unless they have the budget to fly me in. That would be multi-dimensional, wouldn't it?
SI: So let's say, God forbid, you get into a car accident in the middle of nowhere and break your hip. If you stuck your hand under the seat what would you hope to find?
MJP: There's a restaurant in Austin called Guero's and they have a fantastic dish — handmade pork tamales in a queso sauce with refried beans and rice. I would like to find it under my seat but somehow, magically, it was cooked only a few minutes before. Wait. Can I amend my answer?
MJP: I want there to be little tiny people under my seat running a little restaurant so that I would always have whatever I wanted to eat.
SI: This is starting to sound less like a survival scenario and more like a food vacation.
MJP: It's Gulliver's Travels!
SI: You once wrote that you grew up in a house where butter was considered a spice and to be used liberally. Explain.
MJP: I just released a book called Employee of the Month. In it, I write about a time when I was 40 years old and moved in with my parents for a short while during a transition period. I was fascinated to watch their eating habits with adult eyes. My parents salt everything. They salt bacon. They salt salad. They salt apples. I grew up in the Midwest and my father came from a farming community and it was common to have large meals with lots of butter. It was fascinating to me how they managed to have butter as a side dish no matter the meal. If we had a PIZZA somehow butter was incorporated.
MJP: I am sure my mom would serve a side of bread. Surely you've seen the movie Big Night. I love the scene where Tony Shaloub's character gets mad at the woman whose character orders spaghetti and bread. He says, “That's too much starch!” That is not a consideration for my parents. You cannot have too much starch or salt or butter.
SI: Looking back, how did growing up in a starchy, salt-y, butter-y culinary universe shape you?
MJP: What I've realized is that having grown up in that environment in my adult life there are so many foods that I use as a conduit for butter. Pancakes. Corn. They're just a more acceptable way to get butter in your mouth. Now that I am middle aged and trying to eat more healthfully, I can realize where those habits come from and the distorted view of what makes a meal.
SI: Let's talk about Theatre Arlo's Kickstarter campaign. What will the donations pay for?
MJP: Theater Arlo is trying to raise funds to produce this show in Minneapolis. Go on Kickstarter and put “condiments” in the search engine. They need the money for travel, to pay the actor and, of course, for condiments, which I am sure they have to buy a lot of.
SI: How long is Man Saved by Condiments!
MJP: It's only 45 or 50 minutes. When the play opens, the accident has already occurred and, over the course of several minutes, he comes to the realization that he is not going to be saved immediately. Time is somewhat compressed: Days go by and he gets hungrier and hungrier and he starts breaking out the condiments. There's that freak factor of watching somebody eat condiments and if you come for that, that's good enough for me.
SI: Watching a grown man suck condiments out of little foil packets.
MJP: What's not to like?
SI: One last question: What is a condiment best enjoyed in Austin?
MJP: Salsa. You wouldn't believe the delicious variety of salsas here. There's a green sauce. There's queso which, sadly enough, I could eat like soup. Tomatillo. Polvo's, has the most amazing sauces for their enchiladas, including a beautiful walnut mole sauce that is to die for. Not to mention their choriqueso, a chorizo queso. Pico de Gallo. With the tomatoes and tomatoes grown in Austin, it is just out of this world. I could eat it like a salad.