Wednesday, March 1, 2023

An Interview with Ellen Byron By E. B. Davis


It’s hurricane season in New Orleans and vintage cookbook fan Ricki James-Diaz is trying to shelve her weather-related fears and focus on her business, Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop, housed in the magnificent Bon Vee Culinary House Museum.
Repairs on the property unearth crates of very old, very valuable French wine, buried by the home’s builder, Jean-Louis Charbonnet. Ricki, who’s been struggling to attract more customers to Miss Vee’s, is thrilled when her post about the discovery of this long-buried treasure goes viral. She’s less thrilled when the post brings distant Charbonnet family members out of the woodwork, all clamoring for a cut of the wine’s sale.
When a dead body turns up in Bon Vee’s cheery fall decorations, the NOPD zeroes in on Eugenia Charbonnet Felice as the prime suspect, figuring that as head of the Charbonnet family, she has the most to gain. Ricki is determined to uncover the real culprit, but she can’t help noticing that Eugenia is acting strangely. Ricki wonders what kind of secret her mentor has bottled up, and fears what might happen if she uncorks it.
In the second Vintage Cookbook Mystery, Ricki has to help solve a murder, untangle family secrets, and grow her business, all while living under the threat of a hurricane that could wipe out everything from her home to Bon Vee.


Wined and Died in New Orleans is the second book in Ellen Byron’s Vintage Cookbook mystery series. It was released by Berkley on February 7th. Categorized as a culinary mystery, the series isn’t quite the norm in that subgenre. Main character Ricki isn’t a cook/baker. When she does try to make a dessert for streaming, she makes such a mess of it that it is turned into a comedy (luckily). But Ricki does appreciate vintage cookbooks and kitchenware, which is one of the interesting aspects of this series. The characters also draw readers into the action because they are so well defined. I strummed through the book in little time wishing it were longer.


Please welcome Ellen Byron back to WWK.               E. B. Davis


Was Italianate architecture popular after the Civil War? Was it popular throughout the country or just the South/New Orleans? What characterizes this style? Italianate architecture was popular all over the country. It harkened back to 16th century Italian Renaissance architecture, but New Orleans put its own touch on the style, with ironwork balconies and galleries, and Greek Revival columns on many stately homes.


What motivates fangirls such as Iris and her obsession with Eugenia? Their motivated by wanting to be accepted by whomever they consider “cool.” I.e., in Iris’s case, Eugenia represents the height of New Orleans society. Being embraced by her would give Iris bragging rights with people who don’t have access to the upper echelons of New Orleans rarified upper crust.


I was surprised that Ricki left Thor and Princess home alone when a storm was going strong, but she had to get to work. Aren’t most dogs terrified of thunder and lightning? Our dogs would bark at thunder and lightning but weren’t scared of it. I used them as role models.

Although most of the staff aren’t thrilled with having to supervise Eugenia’s granddaughter, Olivia, during an unpaid, semester-long internship, she grows on Ricki. What does Ricki like and recognize in Olivia? As Olivia proves herself useful and then even invaluable when it comes to assisting Ricki in the dreaded task of making a cooking video, the intern grows on her. Also, of everyone on the staff, Olivia is closest in age to Ricki. But even Ricki feels her age around a Gen Zer like Olivia!


I’m confused. Is Olivia Theo’s cousin or niece? Oops, did I mess up?! Olivia is Eugenia’s granddaughter. Theo’s father is Eugenia’s brother, which makes Theo Eugenia’s nephew and Olivia’s cousin. Keeping the family relationships sorted out is tough! My mother is from an Italian family where she only has one brother but a huge amount of cousins who are related on one level or another. I used that as the prototype for all the cousins coming out of the woodwork in Wined and Died in New Orleans.


Ricki seems to be going through a lot of stress. Is it due to her new job, relocation, or weather panics? Or due to the fact that her landlady Kitty Kat lets herself into her house whenever she feels like it? Will Ricki overcome her praline addiction to tell Kitty to knock it off and knock, respecting her privacy? It’s all of the above! It’s the impending storm. It’s the fact she finally and very reluctantly does a little social media and it backfires. It’s adjusting to her new life. As to landlady Kitty, Ricki will eventually tell her not to come and go from Ricki’s home whenever she pleases. But it’s a delicate situation because Kitty is one of Ricki’s mother’s best friends and is giving Ricki a real break on rent. So, Ricki wants to handle it carefully.


Ricki is relying on an old method developed by Emile Coué, which relies on verbal positive affirmation. She happens on the mantra, “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better.” Unfortunately, this is the same saying that Inspector Dreyfus says over and over again in The Pink Panther in response to Inspector Clouseau before he goes mad and is carted off to the funny farm. Is it because of this mantra that Detective Nina starts calling Ricki “Inspector Clouseau?” I had no idea about the mantra being Inspector Dreyfus! It’s actually one I’ve used myself over the years. Nina calls Ricki that to tease her. He’s the archetypal bumbler who still manages to do his job.


Can I assume posting a simple message on Facebook doesn’t cut it anymore to advertise or trend? Do you need hashtags, tags, GIFs, animation, etc. the whole shooting match? Oh yes. You need all of that. It’s a big pain, to be honest. And a ton of work.


When Mordant (is that a real name or one supposed to sound like morbid, since he conducts haunted tours?) finds cases of 1853 Madeira under Bon Vee, it becomes a great asset.

·      Are wines that old still good to drink or do they turn to vinegar or go bad in other ways? If there is no leakage in the seals and they’re stored in a way that protects them, yes, they’re still good to drink. I researched this both online and with Nadine Nettman, a mystery writer who’s also a sommelier.

·      Will bottles that old cost $1000 per bottle? (They have 120 bottles!) Yes. This was based on a real auction I found for wine discovered under an 18th-century home in New Jersey.

·      Was Madeira drunk after the U. S. Constitution was signed? It was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

·      Are there such things as wine auctions? Absolutely. All over the world.


As to Mordant’s name, I made it up. I thought the word would make a good name for an odd fella who leads haunted history tours and is obsessed with New Orleans’ past.


You do a lot of research on old kitchenware, porcelain, and vintage cookbooks. What the coolest fact you’ve unearthed? That John Barrymore had a spaghetti recipe! LOL, I doubt it was really his. I’m sure whoever handled MGM publicity in 1928 supplied the recipe. But my favorite cookbook is still the Photoplay Cook Book [sic] of 1928. This isn’t necessarily one fact. But I think it’s the coolest thing I unearthed.


Ricki is more sympathetic to Theo in this book. She tries to protect him from the peacocks, who hate Theo, and they agree that Clarissa, a distant relation of the Charbonnets, is untrustworthy. What has changed? I think it’s really a case of that old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In commiserating over this awful interlopers, Theo and Ricki bond.


Nina, a police detective called to the scene is verbally abusive at times. She can be sarcastic, nasty, threatening, mocking, and accusatory. And yet, there are times she can be sympathetic and empathetic. Nina seems presumptive in who she assesses as spoiled and rich, and berates those she judges. It was no surprise to find that she flunked Negotiator school. Who is the real Nina? The real Nina is all of those things. But at heart, she’s empathetic. Many of the less appealing qualities are those she’s adopted to survive a very tough job. But she’s also funny, with a dry wit.

I’ve always thought of California in terms of psychedelic colors. Not so these days? No. Those days are long gone. I’ve lived here since 1990 and I would describe its essence as a place of earth tones.


Many of the Charbonnet women wear wool or heavy clothing when most people are sweating. Eugenia wears a wool-knit suit. Lyla wears a sweater. Olivia wears jeans, a flannel shirt underneath a jacket. Are they fashion over function/common sense? The thing about New Orleans is it may be hot as Hades outside but it will be FREEZING inside. Even if you’re just going to dinner, locals will warn you to bring a sweater. So even though it seems counter-intuitive, their dressing is common sense. You could paraphrase the old Mark Twain joke that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Someone could say the coldest winter they ever spent was a summer night inside a New Orleans restaurant!


Why did you describe Virgil’s Bayou Backyard bar as a mashup of a tiki bar and Chuck E. Cheese? Because it’s got elements of tiki bar décor but also has fun games like cornhole.


Why does Ricki have mixed emotions about Iris? Because Iris can be helpful at times and seems to want to be in Ricki’s corner. They do share the goal of wanting to support Eugenia and Bon Vee.


Was fish in aspic a real recipe? It doesn’t sound very good. I know! It sounds horrible. But there was a period during the late 1950s and mid-1960s they wanted to put everything in aspic! There are blogs for “questionable recipes” and many of them are for downright scary aspic dishes, lol.


I was so glad Ricki said “flying roaches” rather the using that euphemism “Palmetto Bug.” Why not call it what it really is? Are they two different things? They’re definitely roaches, just a bigger and grosser version of them.


When Ricki uses Aunt Vee’s bedroom to shower and change, she hears someone call her name. Ricki chalks it up to “auditory memory.” Does Aunt Vee (or perhaps Grandmama?) haunt Bon Vee? You know what, if the series goes on for a while, she just might! New Orleans proudly bills itself as the most haunted city in the country. Locals are proud of it. So… why not?


What’s next for Ricki? Nothing concrete at the moment, but my hope is it will revolve around either Halloween or Mardi Gras, two holidays that no city celebrates like New Orleans. Both make fantastic backdrops for interesting mysteries.



  1. Best of luck, Ellen, to you and your newest publication.

  2. Nice to see you here, Ellen! Great interview. Congratulations on the new book!

  3. Congratulations, Ellen! I am on chapter 3 and am in love with the characters and the setting.

  4. Loved the first in the series—can't wait to start on this one! Great interview!