Bowling for NPR: Amy Tan and Michael Pollan Trade Pens for Pins

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It’s 7:30 pm on a mild evening in San Francisco's Mission District, and so far the soundtrack at Mission Bowling Club has been a steady stream of classic '60s soul tunes. But all of a sudden the opening drumbeats to Pharrell’s “Happy” kick out over the speakers, and Amy Tan is feelin’ it.

In jeans and sneakers, flanked by her husband and a rowdy group of friends, the tiny author of The Joy Luck Club and a half-dozen other best-selling novels is seriously boogeying, shimmying her hips from side to side as she waits for her ball to return.

Her bowling style is decidedly different from that of famed Chez Panisse restaurateur and Slow Food thought leader Alice Waters, who, in the next lane down, radiates calm determination in a deep blue caftan as she focuses, pitches the ball forward, and knocks out a remaining pin for a spare. Victory. A fist in the air. A few yards behind Waters, beloved Tales from the City author Armistead Maupin (lavender button-up shirt, hearty laugh) eyes a fresh tray of crispy fried chicken.

Forget Dancing With the Stars: Bowling with San Francisco literary royalty is waaay better. Especially when it’s a fundraiser for public radio -- NPR’s Kitchen Sisters, in which producer-hosts Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva explore the ways communities come together through food. Especially when the bowling alley has an open bar and one of the best burgers in the city. Even Michael Pollan (he of “eat food -- not too much -- mostly plants" fame) seemed to agree.

And especially when you get to watch the fundraiser’s celebrity guests (which also included author Ayelet Waldman and Pollan’s wife, the artist Judith Belzer; writer-director Roman Coppola was scheduled but couldn’t make it) get straight-up schooled on the lanes by a 91-year-old lady in pearl earrings.

"Amazing" Grace Mulloy (Photo: Kitchen Sisters/Instagram)
"Amazing" Grace Mulloy (Photo: Kitchen Sisters/Instagram)

That would be the amazing Grace Mulloy, the titular Grace of “Bowling with Grace,” as the Kitchen Sisters dubbed their fundraiser party Tuesday night.


A lifelong bowler, Mulloy -- whose granddaughter works with the Kitchen Sisters -- was indisputably the star of the evening, knocking out strike after strike despite her status as legally blind. The foodie celebrities around her, whose scores mostly hovered in the 70 to 90 range, looked on with awe.

“It’s always nice to have an excuse for a party,” Mulloy said at the start of the evening, as the place began to fill up and the bowlers -- VIPs and non-VIPs who had paid $150 a ticket alike -- mixed and mingled themselves into teams.

At the bar, as attendees tried to choose from nine cheeky celebrity-inspired cocktails (an Amy Black & Tan or an Alice Scotch & Waters, anyone? Or might I pour you The Pollanator?) a deeply tanned older gentleman in a starched green suit and dark sunglasses was giving a younger man what seemed to be advice about some kind of health food store investment.

“Why should I go to Whole Foods if I can get chia seeds and almond butter at the corner store?” he demanded to know. “These are the kinds of things you have to think about.”

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Are they, though?

On a bench in Michael Pollan’s lane, someone’s 6- or 7-year-old kid seemed content to sit, belly out, with an iPad full of games and a very fancy pair of headphones blocking out the cacophony of literary icons mingling all around him. He was successfully ignoring everything -- until an adult passing by absentmindedly placed a cookie from Tartine directly in front of his face. He glanced out for less than a second, gobbled it in one bite, and went back to his iPad. Fun guessing game: Which of the radiantly wealthy people around him were his parents? It was impossible to tell.

If the kid was ready to go well before last call at 10 p.m., you couldn’t really blame him -- and he wasn’t alone. After Armistead Maupin emceed the raffle (one lucky bowler went home with a stylish PUBLIC bike -- but not before a slew of dad jokes and the fake winner “Harry Pair of Testes” getting called at least three times), patrons started to trickle out. Alice Waters, looking continuously victorious, appeared to float.

Not Amy Tan, though. Taking a break from dancing, seemingly giddy after having received some tips from the masterful Molloy, Tan shared her new technique.

“She taught me about my deviation, my natural angle, I guess. I’m a deviant!” Tan said excitedly.

Go on with your bad self, Amy Tan.

And besides, as Mulloy apparently likes to tell people: “If you have one bad frame, keep bowling. Don’t worry about it. Don’t slow your roll.”

Words to live by, especially in a surreal, schmoozy room full of local literati on a Tuesday night in the city -- and especially after one has had a few Ayelet Wallbangers (vodka, grapefruit juice, and Galliano). Onto the next frame.