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.
About the Author
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Ricki's heart hammered as she glanced at the ominous black clouds hovering over New Orleans from the front window of her shotgun cottage home. She took a deep breath, then used masking tape to make X's on the windowpanes of the living room's large front window. She grunted as she hefted a mattress onto the top of the room's couch and positioned it over the taped window. "We're safe now," Ricki assured her dogs, a German shepherd mix and a Chihuahua mix, who were watching her with curiosity. "Even if the hurricane sends stuff crashing into the windows, they'll break but they won't shatter into a million pieces. And the mattress will keep everything from flying inside."
A violent clap of thunder shook the house. Ricki cried out. Princess and Thor, the shepherd and Chihuahua, barked at it. I choose to feel calm. I choose positive and nurturing thoughts. Ricki repeated the mantra over and over to herself. She'd been saying it a lot lately. Seconds later, rain slammed the cottage roof with an almost deafening force. Ricki's phone sounded an alert and she grabbed it. She read the message: Hurricane Watch canceled.
"Seriously?" Ricki said with a frustrated groan.
Someone tapped on the front door. She opened it to see her friend Zellah standing on the steps under the old home's overhang, casually swinging an umbrella from a strap hooked to her index finger. "You get the alert? Watch is canceled."
"I know. Again." In the two months since Ricki had moved back to the Big Easy, her childhood home, she'd endured three hurricane false alarms. Another boom of thunder made Ricki jump. A lightning bolt lit the sky. "No hurricane, huh? What do you call this?" She gestured to the clouds above, which were currently operating as faucets in the sky.
"Weather, California Girl." Zellah grinned, creasing the cloud and lightning bolt she'd painted on her cheeks. A quirky artist, she liked to use herself as a canvas. Zellah's support jobs included working at the family business, Peli Deli, and running the café at Bon Vee Culinary House Museum. Bon Vee was also Ricki's place of business. Ricki had realized a dream and opened Miss Vee's Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop, which served as a unique gift shop for the museum. The shop name was an homage to the nickname of Bon Vee's late owner, Genevieve "Vee" Charbonnet.
"You ready to go?" Zellah asked.
"Yes." Ricki bent down and planted a kiss on the head of each dog. "Love you, babies. Try not to play outside, 'kay?" She straightened up. "The doggy door is a lifesaver, but they turn this place into a muddy mosh pit." Ricki peered over Zellah's shoulder. "That's a lot of rain."
"It's New Orleans. There's always a lot of rain."
"I know, but . . . are you positive the house won't flood?"
Zellah gave her a look. "Girl, the Irish Channel neighborhood is the Himalayas of the city. It's practically the only part that's above sea level. Just by a few feet, but still. If Katrina didn't get this neighborhood, nothing will. Stop worrying and let's go."
"Yes, ma'am. And you'll be proud of me. I dressed for the weather." Ricki had recently begun working more vintage outfits into her California-casual wardrobe. She struck a pose, showing off an early 2000s long-sleeve yellow crop top matched with a 1970s skort in a cheery daisy pattern. She lifted a foot, revealing rubber jelly shoes circa mid-1980s. In another homage to the 1980s, she'd used a scrunchy to corral her mass of light-brown curls into a high ponytail. "Shoes I can get wet. A skort so I don't have to worry about pant legs dragging in puddles. And long sleeves to keep me warm in the air-conditioning. I will never get why everyone here expects an indoor temperature that could cause frostbite."
"A few more summers of our huge-midity and you'll be dialing down your own thermostat. Now, come on. Allons-y."
Zellah dashed to her car, a once-nondescript sedan now sporting a riot of painted flowers, courtesy of her own handiwork. Ricki grabbed an umbrella from the side table next to the couch and followed her friend. She jumped into the car. There was a deafening crack of thunder, then the sound of something exploding. Sparks and flames shot into the sky a few blocks ahead. Ricki gasped. "Oh, no. What happened? It looks bad."
"Relax. A transformer blew. You get used to it."
Ricki heard the sound of a siren. Or not, she thought, her eyes on the flames.
By the time Ricki and Zellah reached Bon Vee, the rain had stopped, and the clouds had moved on to bother another region of the Southeast. Ricki parked in the tiny patch of gravel and crushed oyster shells that served as the employee parking area. She and Zellah exited the car and tromped through wet grass toward their respective locations-for Zellah, the outdoor pavilion that served as Bon Vee’s café. For Ricki, the estate’s lovely former Ladies Parlor now housing her shop.
Eugenia Felice, president of the nonprofit board that governed Bon Vee, strode past them, a preoccupied expression on her face. "Morning, Eugenia," Ricki called to the older woman, who also happened to be the niece of the late Genevieve Charbonnet and the brains behind turning the home of the legendary restauranteur into a house museum dedicated to the culinary arts.
Eugenia paused. She seemed thrown by Ricki's greeting. With a lineage reaching back to the founding of Louisiana on one side of her family and the mid-1800s on the other, Eugenia carried herself with a grace and dignity born of a lifetime spent in the upper echelons of New Orleans society. But lately, Ricki had noticed a change in her.
Eugenia patted down an imaginary loose hair from her perfectly coiffed and colored blond chignon. She hesitated, as if she couldn't decide whether or not to say something. After a minute, she summoned a desultory smile. "Good morning." Then she continued her march away from them.
"Have you noticed how weird she's been lately?" Ricki asked Zellah as they watched her go. "Like something's bothering her and she can't decide whether to talk about it or not."
"To be honest, I've seen it mostly when she's around you."
"Oh, great." Ricki's brow creased with worry. "My sales are off, thanks to all the storms and alerts. People aren't shopping as much. Do you think she wants to cancel my contract for the shop?" She clapped her hands together as if praying. "Please tell me she doesn't want to cancel my contract. I've only had the shop open a month. I don't have a plan B. If Miss Vee's goes down, it's taking me with it."
"Stop right there." Zellah held up a hand. "Miracle James-Diaz, you need to relax. I'm sure it's not that. I've only heard her say good things about the shop."
"Then I don't know what's up."
"Maybe she's just trying to avoid Iris," the café owner deadpanned.
This got a laugh from Ricki. Iris Randowski, recently hired as a Bon Vee tour guide, brought a passion to her job that bordered on obsession, especially when it came to Eugenia. "Someone fangirling over a sixty-something society matron like she's a pop star is disturbing enough to watch," Ricki said. "I can't even think of what it's like to be on the receiving end of it."
Zellah responded with a deep-throated chuckle. "I know, right? But I'll tell you what, something's definitely up with Eugenia." She pointed to the woman's back as she disappeared into the carriage house and its second-floor staff offices. "She walked through wet grass with leather pumps. That's the sign of a society matron off her game."
The women reached Bon Vee and parted ways, promising to meet up for lunch. Ricki took a moment to drink in the beauty of Bon Vee. The late Genevieve Charbonnet's home turned historical site covered more than half a block in the Big Easy's legendary Garden District. Built in 1867, Bon Vee was the largest home in the neighborhood, and Ricki thought it the most beautiful, although she acknowledged the mansion faced stiff competition from the magnificent homes surrounding it. A warm shade of ivory bathed the Italianate-style edifice. A semicircle portico featuring a half-dozen Doric columns graced the home's imposing front entrance, and a cast-iron gallery climbed the three stories of its west side. Landscaping included a slate patio fronting Zellah's café, the verdant lawn Eugenia had marched through, and gardens ranging from manicured clipped hedges to bowers of colorful subtropical flowers.
Ricki noticed a peacock feather on the grass, shed by either Gumbo or Jambalaya, the two peacocks who deigned to grace Bon Vee with their presence. She picked it up and headed inside the mansion to Miss Vee's. After unlocking the mullion-glassed French doors, Ricki pressed an antique button. A stunning crystal chandelier original to the home came to life, illuminating the room and decorating it with rainbows cast by the chandelier's crystal prisms. She placed the peacock feather in a vase containing past feathers shed by the birds, then got to work prepping for the shoppers she hoped would show up, putting away vintage cookbooks she'd scored at the Xavier Arnault Memorial Library sale.
A 1980s book titled All-Maine Cooking found a home on a shelf marked "Regional." The Cook's Handbook, published by the Carnation Company in 1951 to promote their products, went on a shelf dedicated to advertorial cookbooks and cookbooklets. Ricki had scored some great fall-themed finds through a couple of thrift shop deep dives, including a cookie jar shaped like a pumpkin. She arranged a display including table linens featuring a leaf motif around the cookie jar, sprinkling in new swag decorated with the Miss Vee's Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop logo designed by Zellah.
Before long, a murmur of voices alerted her to the arrival of the day's first tour group. Ricki arranged the benches in the small screening area that took up one-third of the space and set up the laptop that ran an introductory video to Bon Vee and its colorful former owner, "Miss Vee." Then Ricki positioned herself behind the shop register to sell the visitors tour tickets and hopefully entice them into a souvenir buying spree.
While "spree" might be overkill in describing the morning tours' shopping patterns, guests bought enough to put Ricki in a better mood than she'd been in for days. Around noon, she removed a homemade salad from the small fridge under her desk, hung an old sign reading "Be Back Soon!" in a midcentury font from the French doors, and strolled over to the café for lunch.
Her coworkers had already claimed one of the eating area's picnic tables. Lyla Brandt, Bon Vee's executive director and Ricki's immediate boss, waved her over. Ricki began to sit down between Theo Charbonnet, Eugenia's nephew and the self-titled director of community relations, and pixieish Cookie Yanover, who referred to herself as a "recovering children's librarian" and worked at Bon Vee as the director of educational programming.
Cookie held up a warning hand and waved a finger at Ricki. "Right," Ricki said. "My bad." She knew better than to sit between Cookie and a single man.
Cookie, married at twenty-one and divorced at twenty-one and a half, had been in and out of relationships in the ten years since. She was determined to land "the second Mister Yanover," as she termed him, before she turned thirty-five, and Theo had been in her crosshairs since both began working at Bon Vee. Theo, a man about Cookie's age who styled himself a "playa" but whose ego was disproportionate to his middling looks and intellect, had yet to respond to a single one of her advances. Cookie considered Theo's lack of interest a challenge and entertained herself trying to seduce him.
On this particular day, she wasn't making any progress. "What's the problem with Ricki sitting here?" Theo said without looking up from his Zellah-made grilled shrimp po'boy. "It's a picnic bench. There's plenty of room."
Cookie made a face at Theo that he didn't notice, following it up with an annoyed eye roll to the others. Ricki smiled and shook her head in sympathy.
"Sit next to me." Lyla swept a bunch of papers and loose ends taking up the space next to her into a giant tote bag and Ricki claimed the seat. Lyla cast an eye at Ricki's salad. "Economizing?"
Ricki nodded. "I had a good morning but if sales don't pick up, I may be taking a fork and knife to a shoe sole, like Charlie Chaplin in that old silent movie." Her phone pinged a text and she checked it. "Yes! I haven't been buying much but I won an auction for four Betty Crocker Golden Press cookbooks. Their covers are so colorful. I love them. Look."
She showed the photo of her winning bid to the others, who echoed her reaction to the charming cookbook covers. "Ricki, this shot is perfect for social media," Cookie said. "You should post it. If you want to increase sales, especially online, you need to up your online profile."
This came from Zellah. With no more customers lined up at the café, she'd joined them, positioning herself next to Ricki on the picnic bench. "I know you hate that stuff-"
"A little." Sarcasm wasn't Ricki's usual go-to inflection. But her husband Chris's drive to find fame as internet personality Chriz-azy! had led to his death doing a stupid stunt, leaving her a young widow with a revulsion for social media.
"But," Zellah continued, "you can't complain about low sales and then not take advantage of free promo ops on social media sites."
Cookie and Lyla both expressed agreement. "Theo, what do you think?" Cookie asked.
"I think," he said, "Zellah is purposely shorting me on the shrimp in my po'boys."
Theo glared at her, and she smirked. "Busted."
"You know Zellah's right," Lyla said to Ricki, "about being more visible online, not the other thing. No shrimp shorting, missy." She shook a finger at Zellah, following the gesture with a smile.
Ricki sighed. "I know I should do more online promotion. But . . ." Conflicted, she trailed off.
"Would it help if I ordered you to do it, as your boss?" Lyla's voice was laced with sympathy. Ricki nodded. "Then consider yourself ordered."
"Ooh, I have an idea." Zellah spoke with enthusiasm. "You could make cooking videos using recipes from your cookbooks. Vintage recipes are a great hook, especially with our generation."
"Mine too." Lyla sounded a touch defensive. In her mid-forties, she was ten to fifteen years older than her tablemates and occasionally insecure about the age difference.