The very thought of choosing to be deprived of food for money is completely mind-boggling to us. Doing that for the amusement of the American television viewing public rockets that plan straight to the top of the absolutely never list. Yet, for Benjamin “Coach” Wade, that's exactly what he did – three times – in an attempt to win the million-dollar prize on CBS's reality juggernaut Survivor. (No, really. That show is still on.)
We can't vouch for his TV persona, but one-on-one, Wade, the conductor of the non-profit Susanville Symphony is an incredibly sweet and hilarious guy who (when not on a desert island) really has a thing for food. He's a home cook, a member of a local dining society, an adventure eater and loves food as a metaphor for life. Fans of the show know him as a bit of a hyperbolic eccentric and totally opinionated, but what self respecting food lover isn't?
When we met him for dinner at Sea Harbour recently, the meal he thoughtfully demolished consisted of jellyfish and sea cucumber in special XO sauce, young squab with open beak, salted egg yolk dumplings, spicy fried beef, fermented tofu, abalone and a bowl full of an unidentifiable porridge we didn't remember ordering. That last dish he devoured, declared it the least appetizing thing he had ever eaten, politely asked if we were eating ours, and proceeded to eat that too.
He didn't win the money — came in second this time — but he did tell us a bit about what it's like to not have a regular meal for 97 days, what they did eat and what the self-proclaimed Dragon Slayer likes for dinner. (Indian food, pad thai and Rocky Mountain oysters, apparently.)
Squid Ink: How many days were you on Survivor?
Benjamin Wade: I played three times and a total of 97 days. The first was Survivor 18 in Brazil, then Survivor 19, Heroes versus Villains in Samoa, a best of the best season – I was a villain, thanks – and then Survivor 20 in Samoa again.
SI: What does a person eat on a desert island?
BW: On Survivor 18 they provided us a paltry amount of rice and beans. We also ate fish, bones and all, and dug up termites. They give us a manual of what you can and can't eat in the area, and what's poisonous so you can find food. One of the things they said we could eat were cashews, which were at the height of the season when we were there, but we couldn't find any. Found the trees but there was nothing on them. I think they stripped the trees so we couldn't get to them.
SI: Do you think the producers want you to starve?
BW: It's a psychological experiment, the game. They don't want you to eat and sleeping is like water torture. You can't do it. Human beings need three things: food, water and sleep. We didn't even have access to clean water to drink. You see people at their worst and willing to do anything to win and for something to eat.
SI: So what else did you (ahem) survive on?
BW: In Brazil we would have one small little banana to eat all day. And you ration them and if you think someone is stealing bananas you have a witch hunt and sit around in a circle and accuse someone of stealing the banana and then vote them off the island. For eating a banana.
Second and third time in Samoa they gave us nothing. We just had coconut. There were the coconuts that were laying on the ground for two weeks that were like cotton candy, young coconut, slimy coconut, fresh coconut with the juice, every kind of good to bad coconut. Oh man. In Brazil we also ate some beans from pods off the trees because we were so hungry. This is good — you opened the pods up and oh man they smelled like a soccer player wore the same socks for a month then put them in their locker next to a heater for another month. It was disgusting, but we ate them.
At the end of the first season I weighed 149 lbs and had started at 205. [Wade is about 6 feet tall.] People ask me about going on the Survivor diet. I say yea, don't eat anything, don't sleep, try to get some parasites and you'll be on the right track.
[Wade sits up straighter and very seriously starts contemplating the 3 ounce pigeon on his plate.] I'm now eating young squab, first thing I do is eat the kidney, I grab it with my finger and my thumb and pop it in my mouth. It's the best kidney ever.
Last time on Survivor we had chickens, there were chickens out there and the other team had some and it was cool, because we thought they were going to lay eggs and stuff. So anyway, there's more meat on this young squab than on those wild chickens. I keep thinking about this squab and how it was probably running around yesterday and now I'm eating it. [Wade sampled the bones of the bird.]
On the island, my stomach shrank, but then you win a reward and eat and you have to go through that same thing again. At the food auction [one segment that is on every season] I paid $320 for a plate of Chicken Parmesan. It was so good but I would have been better not eating it.
SI: Did you stop eating before you went on the show to prepare?BW: That's a good question; I've never been asked that. First time, I bulked up before I went. Worked out. Second time — I came in lean and mean, I trained. This last time, they gave me a week and a half before I had to go and I was working out but subconsciously I just couldn't stop eating. I was in Philadelphia eating all these cheese steaks I could and realized that wasn't helping me mentally prepare. I couldn't stop. They were so good. Then I had to.
SI: Do you talk about food non-stop when you can't have any?
BW: The unfortunate thing about Survivor is that you are deprived of so many things. When you're out there and you start talking about food — other people, I don't — I am the Dragon Slayer, I don't talk about food. I can go out there and starve myself. Every dragon out there — not the slayer — the dragons, they all talk about food. Somebody starts talking about food, makes me want to throttle them. If you can't have food, don't talk about food. Focus on the game.
SI: What was it like when you came back? What was the first thing you ate?
BW: Well, I got back four months ago and I'm still eating everything since I was so deprived. I'm still ravenously hungry. I can't get my fill of food. [We can vouch for that. For a normal sized man, he ate a LOT.] Every Survivor I would hear people talking about food that I don't even like and I would become fixated because they kept talking. There was one contestant, Sierra, who would talk about these cupcakes all the time. I had to have them. When I got home I had my friend meet me at the airport with 24 cupcakes, the good ones too with all the frosting. I ate them all. I don't even like those vanilla cupcakes. I still eat them though. I just need the food and the fix. Same with Double Stuf Oreos. I never ate them before but they talked about them all the time. I have to have them now.
It's funny. When your done with the show you come back all skinny and you look terrible and then you eat so much so fast you get get skinny-fat. Just our stomach gets big and then you start to work out and it never works. I've lost and gained around 130lbs on three seasons of the show. And I can't stop eating.
SI: Does The Dragon Slayer offer his victim a last meal before they're slain?
BW: Nah. They eat shit and then get voted off the island.
SI: Is there anything you want to eat that you haven't?
BW: Zebra and chilled monkey brains.
SI: Why chilled monkey brains?
BW: Indiana Jones.
SI: You know they're considered a cure for impotence, right?
BW: Then just zebra.
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