Mary Jo is a petite person with a colossal personality. She strides into a room, her glowing, larger-than-life aura in tow. Bursting with contagious energy and positivity, she’s the kind of person you want in your corner when you’re having a lousy day. We met when Mary Jo was testing recipes for Fine Cooking Magazine. I didn’t know then, but the violent storm which descended upon Newtown, Connecticut, on May 15, 2018, would forge our friendship forever.
I vividly recall that Tuesday afternoon. The test kitchen was crowded with people as we wrapped up a lengthy editors’ tasting of recipes for our late summer issue, #154. Word reached us that a dangerous storm front was rolling in fast and that everyone should pack up and leave. I wasn’t that concerned until hail the size of golf balls started crashing into the windows and pounding on the roof. Suddenly, the frightening, catastrophic storm was upon us. It took only minutes to blow through, leaving dramatic paths of destruction in its wake.
Mary Jo left a few moments before me. As usual, I was the last to lock up and leave. By the time I exited the building, the sky was blue again! Did I just experience a psychotic episode? Had this really happened? How could a storm of such strength and magnitude blow through with such ferocity, then dissipate so quickly?
Heading home on the single-lane road out of Newtown, it was impossible not to gawk at the shocking devastation left by the storm. Only a few cars ahead, MJ was on my speakerphone. Since we lived relatively close and traveled the same highways, we figured we’d keep in touch. We agreed that Mother Nature was clearly pissed off. The storm had uprooted gigantic trees, pulling them out by the roots as if they were toothpicks. Some had broken through roofs, crushed cars, and blocked streets. Multiple wires were down, too, looking like clumps of hair tangled up in a hairbrush. After driving 45 minutes, we had only traveled about a mile when we discovered we could go no further. We had no choice but to return to the test kitchen, which, luckily, still had power.
We searched online maps to configure alternate routes home but didn’t know if they’d be any better. Then MJ had an idea. “Let’s call the Newtown Police Department; they’ll probably be able to tell us if these roads are safe to travel.” Connecting took a while, but the operator told us to stay put. About 10,000 distress calls had flooded the station, and all roads leading home were closed due to downed wires and trees. We would have to spend the night. As expected, all local hotels, motels, and B&Bs were already full. We had to figure out a way to turn this disaster into an adventure, and as the Steve Winwood song says, “Roll with it, baby!”
Miraculously, we found an open restaurant. We split a much-needed bottle of wine, had a decent dinner, and had a long heart-to-heart talk. We circled back to the office and hunkered down for the night, sleeping on the luxurious Stickley furniture before the grand fireplace in the main lobby. All things considered, we were pretty comfortable, just beginning to doze off. So, when the automatic alarm activated itself with a click, we didn’t hear it.
It was my fault. I tripped the alarm on the way to the restroom later that night. A deafening whooping siren howled, and an authoritative, computer-generated voice advised predators within to “NOT ATTEMPT TO LEAVE THE BUILDING.” Surprisingly, I didn’t panic but instead snickered, asking myself if anyone in their right mind would heed these empty threats. Mary Jo sat meditatively as she waited for my return. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. We would leave the building but remain in the parking lot waiting for the police because, indeed, they were on their way.
But here was our dilemma; the doors had automatically locked us in once the alarm system turned on. As an employee, I knew how to disengage the manual emergency lock several feet from the exit. This meant that MJ would have to slip between the door’s glass panels to get it moving while I depressed the button. Eventually, I’d have to jump in and join her if we had any hope of leaving the building. In retrospect, hysterical flashes of Lucy and Ethel come to mind as I recall whirling round and round in the revolving door as we tried to anticipate the perfect moment to leap out. But at the time, it wasn’t funny at all.
When the door finally spat us out, we sat in my car, nervously waiting instead of making a run for it as any wizened criminal would’ve done. Moments later, blinded by the high beams from three police cars speeding directly toward us, I waved my ID out the window as if it were Captain America’s shield and, in a polite yet loud voice, said, “Hello, officers, we work here!” The good news was that they believed our story. The bad news was that we couldn’t get back into the building since, upon entry, the alarm would sound again. At that moment, we were both so bedraggled that even a room at The Overlook — Steven King’s fictional hotel from The Shining — would have sufficed. We spent the rest of the night fitfully sleeping in the car, monitored every so often by the kind officers who offered to drive through the parking lot every half hour to watch over us until morning.
When dawn broke, we strolled the strangely unaffected, beautifully manicured Taunton Press campus. We silently meditated and did morning stretches until I could no longer stand another moment without coffee. Then, safely back in the test kitchen, steaming mugs in hand with normalcy beginning to set in, people began returning to work. Each told the story of their torturous trip home and their adventurous evening.
Mary Jo and I looked at each other and smiled. When it was our turn, we put a comedic spin on our tale, making everyone laugh while we laughed the hardest. Our second day together ended with a big hug. At that point, I knew things had changed between us forever. We had become great friends literally overnight!
To this day, MJ and I celebrate the anniversary of what we jokingly call our “Fine Cooking Magazine Sleepover Adventure.” Lots of people lost power that night, but Mary Jo and I found the power within to turn what could have been an awful situation into a memorable moment. Now, whenever I hear the expression “good things come in small packages,” without a doubt, my good friend Mary Jo always comes to mind.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes, which Mary Jo developed for Fine Cooking Magazine. You’ll find this delicious and quick Herbed Artichoke Galette in issue #160, August/September.
Please let me know if you try this recipe because Mary Jo and I would love to get your feedback!
Giving credit where credit is due:
Food styling: Heather Meldrome
Photography: Felicia Perretti