Earlier this month, Slate teamed up with the Significant Objects project and offered our readers a challenge: Take a worthless object and give it value by writing a short story about why it's important. We chose the item for you, a small barbecue-sauce jar with a built-in brush, purchased at a thrift store in Meredith, N.H., for $0.75.
More than 600 readers accepted the challenge, submitting stories that were inventive, moving, funny, surprising, weird, and in some instances, frankly, disturbing. (To the several readers who submitted stories about cannibalism: We decided not to alert your neighbors. Please don't make us regret this.)
A team of judges from Slate, together with Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, the founders of Significant Objects, pored over all 600 entries, narrowed the list down to 12 finalists, and eventually picked a winner. Before announcing that winner, allow us to make a few small observations about the stories you submitted. There were some recurring themes:
Barbecue: This one we saw coming. The jar is clearly intended to be a conveyance for barbecue sauce, and the majority of submissions took place at backyard grills, country kitchens, or local establishments famous for their burnt ends. Sauces from just about every school of American barbecue found their way into the jar in your stories. There was also at least one instance of teriyaki.
Shaving: Many readers who submitted stories thought the barbecue route was too obvious. You wanted something that was going to be unique, that was really going to grab the judges' attention. So you wrote a story about shaving. Nice try.
Sex: Who knew that barbecue sauce is an aphrodisiac? There was a lot of tangy, sticky, smoke-infused sex in your stories. A lot. For example, in a story submitted by B.V. Lawson of Arlington, Va., a husband and wife spend their evenings slathering each other with a variety of sauces. One night, however, the wife returns home early from a business trip—a brand-new bottle of Jack Daniels rib glaze in her luggage—only to find her husband marinating his secretary.
Death: The death toll of these 600 stories was astonishing. Dozens of grandmas and grandpas bequeathed the jar—along with a priceless family barbecue recipe—shortly before expiring. Other deaths were more violent. Jeffrey Stone of Georgetown, Ky., suggested the jar had been a shaving implement belonging to one Bar Battiste Quirino Sauce, a revolutionary leader in 1920s Italy. Ratted out by a fascist spy, Signore Sauce is executed by firing squad—though not before getting in one last shave.
History: A parade of historical figures made cameos in your stories. Emily Erfani of Washington, D.C., contrived to have Strom Thurmond encounter the jar shortly before his historic filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. In Eileen Moushey's story, a young Elvis Presley steals the jar from a barbecue joint in Tupelo, Miss. The narrator of the story submitted by Brian Estes, a student from Spartanburg, S.C., is given the jar by the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. As Estes tells it, Earnhardt had himself received the jar as a gift—from NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Fittingly, the winner of the contest managed to incorporate all five of these themes into one 442-word story. Matthew Wells, a playwright living in New York City, has spun a tale of sex, murder, ribs, and one very sticky shave, set in turn-of-the-century New York City and featuring the model Evelyn Nesbit and her lover, famed architect Stanford White.
Wells' story has just been posted on eBay, accompanying the barbecue jar, which is now up for auction. How much value will Wells' story add to the object? Keep tabs on the auction here, and check back at Slate next week for a follow-up on how much the jar fetched for Matthew. Congratulations to our winner and to all of our finalists. The names of the 11 runners-up are at the bottom of this article; Matthew's story follows below:
Booth 106 was the regular table of Evelyn Nesbit—it's where she was introduced to Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his famous Gibson Girl drawings; it's where she met the young John Barrymore, who became her lover and got her pregnant twice (once in the booth itself and once in his apartment); it's where she was introduced to architect Stanford White by fellow Floradora Girl Edna Goodrich; and it's where she met her future husband Harry Thaw, who murdered White at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906.
Originally surrounded by red velvet drapes, the booth is now open and unlit. On the wall is a photo of Nesbit from her Gibson Girl days and beneath it, on a small shelf, is a little jar labeled "BAR-B-Q Sauce." The jar was originally purchased by Nesbit as a gift for White—whenever White would meet her for dinner, he would order ribs, and she paid the waiters to always keep the small jar full of sauce at the table for White's special use. Very special, according to suppressed trial testimony after his murder—allegedly, the ribs weren't the only things White covered in barbecue sauce behind those drapes.
After White's death, Booth 106 was roped off as a sign of mourning, a RESERVED sign was placed on the table, and per Evelyn Nesbit's wishes, once a week the bartender would refill the BAR-B-Q jar, as if in preparation for White's eventual return. The table went empty for almost two years (not even Nesbit sat at it), until the afternoon of January 5, 1908, when Harry Thaw sailed into the Naughty Pine, plunked himself down at Booth 106, ripped up the RESERVED sign, tore down the red velvet curtains, draped them around his body like a winding sheet, and demanded a shave. When told that he was in a bar and not a barber shop, Thaw cried, "Then I'll do it myself," whereupon he pulled out a straight razor, stropped it on his leather belt, and taking the BAR-B-Q jar, proceeded to slop sauce all over his face as if it were shaving cream. Then, pretending to stare into a mirror, he gave himself a blood-soaked shave while humming "I Could Love a Million Girls," the song that had been playing when he shot White in the face.
"You must be a lunatic," said one of the waiters. Thaw just smiled at him. His first trial for the murder of Stanford White had ended in a deadlocked jury; but the next day, when his second trial began, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
The runners-up (in alphabetical order):
David Abrams, Butte, Mont.
Tom Bradstreet, Windsor, U.K.
Alex Chapman, Buford, Ga.
Rodrigo Chavez, El Centro, Calif.
Erin Ellia, Weymouth, Mass.
Jason Fernandes, Memphis, Tenn.
Joe Lyons, Pittsburgh
Francesca Petty, Chicago
David Popple, Grand Prairie, Texas
Hepzibah Phreake, Carrboro, N.C.
Alan Rodriguez, Houston
Thanks to everyone who submitted a story; a rack of ribs will never quite taste the same to us again.