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Writers on Writers: Andrew Sean Greer Challenges Lysley Tenorio to a Meatball Skype-off

The two writers on meatballs, martinis, and Tenorio's "Monstress."

It seemed like such a good idea: I would phone my favorite local writer, Lysley Tenorio, an associate professor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and together we would come up with some wild adventure—a hot air balloon ride, a scavenger hunt—during which we would sip wine and talk about his debut short story collection, Monstress. So I call him up.

“I’m living in Washington, D.C.,” he tells me sadly. Apparently his partner, Bruce, is the poet-in-residence at George Washington University. “I won’t be in San Francisco for months.”

“Well, this is awkward. At the very least, I was going to cook you a spaghetti dinner.”

“Oh.” There is a long pause over the phone. “We can do that. We can do that over Skype.”

So that is what we planned. Tenorio would be in his kitchen in D.C., and I would be in mine in the Lower Haight. Our laptops would be pointed toward our stove tops as we each cooked our own rendition of spaghetti and meatballs (Tenorio drawing from Martha Stewart Living, me from Cook’s Illustrated). We would make a martini. Or two. As long as we stopped there, we would surely reach some high point of literary and culinary conversation. Two martinis, tops.

“Thank you for not asking for some Filipino specialty,” says Tenorio, who came to America from the Philippines when he was seven months old. “I can’t cook real adobo.”

“Well, it’s Skype. I wouldn’t get to eat it,” I reply. “And then I’d have to cook my people’s food. Squirrel pie, I guess.” My family is from Kentucky.

To supplement my Cook’s Illustrated recipe, I am using my secret meatball method, which is to put a little bit of mozzarella inside each meatball so that I don’t have to worry about cooking them all the way through. My recipe also calls for sweet sausage meat, and when Tenorio hears that, he frowns. “You’re going to win,” he says, his eyes going to his first martini, nearly finished.

“It’s not a contest,” I say. “Well, actually, it is a contest.”

We begin to mix our meat, eggs, parsley, parmesan, garlic, and breadcrumbs (although my instructions call for bread soaked in milk instead of breadcrumbs). Then Tenorio and I each drop the meatballs into the sizzling pans. We pour second martinis and toast each other.

Page two: The taste-test