When you think of great BBQ pork, stripped sauce-soaked goodness, you probably think of Clarksdale, or Walterboro, or some tiny town in Texas. What if I told you the best I've had was in Sasebo, Japan on the Navy Base? It was so good; I ate fifteen sandwiches in ten minutes. Granted, I am a Major League Eater and on a Navy Entertainment tour, bringing competitive eating to the troops in pro-am events.
I wrote about this tour's first stop at Yokosuka in my previous Huffington Post piece, but you are probably wondering how does someone become the Bob Hope of the hot dog, traveling the world, entertaining the armed forces. Since, 2009 I have been on six tours to bases like Sigonella in Sicily, Souda Bay in Crete, Chinhae in Busan Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, Bases in Guam and Diego Garcia and even Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (Gitmo became Eatmo for a Labor Day Jazz Fest). In Japan, I have entertained at Camp Fuji (donuts), Yokosuka (ramen), Atsugi (burritos), and Okinawa (hot dogs). I have been fortunate to do eating exhibitions, contest, or meet-and-greets on warships like the USS Fitzgerald, nuclear subs like the US Ohio, and on this tour in Sasebo, the very cool carrier, USS Bonhommie Richard (great ice cream!) The best part is meeting the enlisted men and women of all divisions of the armed forces and talking food and life with them. It is simply, the most important thing I have done as a competitive eater and an American.
How did it happen? In addition to Major League Eating's support, I owe my good fortune to two people in particular. Ari Nisman of Degy Entertainment is one of the biggest music bookers in the business. He specializes in college tours and bookings and the military relies on folks like Ari to send bands overseas to entertain the troops. He saw me on the Emeril Show and thought that competitive eating is like rock-and-roll with food, plus the demographic of young military men and women might dig the gustatory gladiators of Major League Eating. He then contacted Karen Fritz, who runs Navy Entertainment worldwide, bringing everything from bands to chefs to athlete's around the world. Karen is on the road more than she is home, making sure that even the most remote installations get American entertainers and some fun. Every division of the armed forces has a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Division (MWR) that works on bases and ships to provide entertainment -- popcorn machines on ships, movie nights on base, snorkeling trips and a million other events from 40,000 person open base festivals to a lounge where a sailor can Skype home (or play video games). This is not an easy job.
Karen and Ari agreed that the spectacle of MLE's eaters devouring food fast would be a great opener for some of the bands that they send on tour. In Saebo, we had the help of two great acts to entertain the Naval Base. Kareem and Vito, two world class DJs from Providence, RI form "Baby Electronica" by donning LED light up helmets and glasses (think of them as Daft Punker) and spinning, scratching, and dropping beats with all the bells and whistles. They remixed the eaters' intros so that Adrian "The Rabbit" Morgan could pump the crowd up with "Eye of the Tiger," and Michelle "No Leftovers" Lesco could chomp to the beat of Flogging Molly. Sadly, a forty minute Phish jam, doesn't quite work for my intro, but Baby Electronica got the crowd on their feet and ready for a pro-am chowdown. Each pro-eater lead their team of two service men or women for a cumulative total of BBQ pork sliders in ten minutes. I was joined by two E5 ranked sailors, Walker and Mattson, to tackle the delicious BBQ pork sliders (provided by Brodie's, a stellar on base restaurant). Our judges were members from the Kelly Bell Band, who were kind enough to sit in the spray zone before their gig and total the consumption. It was a BBQ bun buzzer beater, as Team Lesco ate 30, Team Rabbit 28, and Team Crazy Legs 27 ¾. Walker, Mattson, and I were a mere three sandwich stuff at the end away from victory. We should have chipmunked.
If Blues Funk Bands were competitive eaters then the Kelly Bell Band would be the top fifty ranked eaters all chomping in harmony. Travelling from Charm City, Baltimore this party band has gone all over the world for Navy Entertainment. They spent July 4th in Bahrain during Ramadan and made it the party place to be in the Middle East. At every Navy Entertainment gig, they give away their new album on a downloadable card (the military travels light). They spent a week on the USS Stennis from Pearl Harbor to San Diego performing six different shows, never repeating songs, making a military maneuver into a dance floor dance-off (like Footloose on the water, sailor soldiers are not allowed to dance in uniform, but rumor has it the band was so good, demerits were issued for illegal boogying.) Lead man and headliner, Kelly Bell was a pro wrestler for thirteen years in the Mid Atlantic region and wrestled greats like Jerry Lawler and "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, almost always as a heel (wrestling bad guy). The insults he would hurl at Dundalk's working class folks would earn him state trooper escorts out of the arena at the end of the night. It's odd, because in the phat blues setting of the band, his smile is as wide as the Chesapeake Bay. He is without a doubt one of the nicest guys in the music business. The rest of the band is more than equal to the task - Drummer John Buell is a Berklee trained master who keeps the beat like Adrian Morgan eats Twinkies. Derrick Dorsey plays base and has fingers that would serve him well on the pro-eating circuit; his manual dexterity would be useful at the Rouse's Crawfish Eating Championship. Ryan Fowler is a guitarists' guitarist. He knows every guitar, every cool case to carry it in, and can (jokingly) rip anything from Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" to Black Sabbath. Word Eldridge backs up Kelly on vocals and congas and exudes such strength and power on stage that his lyrics rain down in the spray zone, like chicken wing bones from Michelle Lesco's plate. The guy I always keep my eyes (and ears) on is Ira Mayfield JR. Known as "Black Steel" Ira's steely gaze reminds me of Scatman Crothers' "Dick Halloran" from "The Shining," but instead of offering Doc some ice cream, he plays his guitar telepathically, thus entering and blowing the audience's mind. As a year round shorts wearing guy, I also noticed that Ira always keeps his shorts neatly creased which I respect. If they would their soundcheck on CD, I would buy it. To be the opener for them is heaven (even if the competitive eaters leave the stage slick with hot dog juice or pulled pork detritus the band is still nice to us.)
The Sasebo crowd came out on a Tuesday night when the military starts Wednesday morning around 4 am and after the MLE pro-am, the blazing set by The Kelly Bell Band, Baby Electronica - DJs Kariim Hafez and Vito DeLuca JR, rocked the crowd at the Galaxy Club on base. I know little about dance music, hip hop, scratching or LED helmets, but these Providence, RI guys put on a master class. Granted, they didn't play any Katy Perry, but despite the difficulty of digesting fifteen pulled pork sliders I still was able to hit the dance floor and shake my bad stuff because of the way these guys create the vibe.
For the performers, it was a magical night and we hope for The Troops that some of our heartfelt thanks, respect, and awe carried over to them and provided them with a night of joy. My favorite band, The Tubes sings a song titled, "Proud to be an American." The Kelly Bell Band doesn't cover it and Baby Electronica knows you can't dance to it, but Tuesday night in Sasebo, it was the soundtrack to the evening.
Crazy Legs Conti can only do fourteen push-ups but has seen "Stripes" fifteen times at www.crazylegsconti.com