Les Stroud on Eating for Survival
We talked with the Survivorman star about finding your meals in the backcountry, and why you should consider foraging your own holiday feast—and maybe even eating it raw and rotting
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Les Stroud has shot 25 harrowing episodes of Survivorman, the latest of which have seen him using his extensive survival expertise to make it through 10 days in the desolate wilderness, up from seven days in the previous three seasons. He manages without a film crew, and with only minimal equipment, but one of the most captivating elements of his show is watching him forage his meals from distinctly unpromising offerings found in the bush. (There are various 10-minute fan mashups on YouTube of Stroud eating everything from grasshoppers to willow buds.) We caught up with the survivalist to talk about his relationship with food, foraging, and what we could learn from the primitive diet.
You’re known for your emergency survival techniques, but you also spent a year in the bush living a Paleolithic lifestyle. How does that diet diverge from what you eat on Survivorman?
Primitive living is very different from survival, but there are some similarities. A lot of early societies did not go out of their way to make crazy, spicy meals. One of the discoveries of civilization was playing with food—combining flavors and making eating enjoyable.
The first thing you learn is that you don’t eat three meals a day. Often you eat one meal a day. Traditional people ate when they got food. Feast or famine.
Both in the year I spent in the bush and during Survivorman, I found that that kind of subsistence diet is very bland. It has nothing to do with blending flavors and spices—that came later with civilization, so it’s a bland existence. So when you do get something that naturally has awesome flavor—like maple syrup, which is a traditional food source—it’s like, Oh my GOD! Magic.
Your year living Paleo—it can’t be the trendy Paleo diet that we think of. So what did you eat?
It was whatever the North American bush offered us traditionally—circa 500 years ago—and that was surprisingly varied: wild rice, peas, maple syrup, flour made from wild plants, and then of course you’ve got fish, wild game, berries….
And you have to process them in a way that they’ll last all year, so you’ll make a berry mash and hang it out to make fruit leather, you make a lot of jerky out of dried fish and meat. There’s actually a lot more to eat than you might think.
Is there anything you’ve retained from that diet that you still like to prepare?
Wild rice and maple syrup combinations are really wonderful—I never would have had wild rice without that experience.
During Survivorman, I learned to sun-dry Arctic char, and I still love that.
How do you prepare it?
You take the side of the fish off with the meat still attached to the skin. You cut the meat in inch-long slices across the meat, and you cut it on an angle, so that when you lift up the piece of skin, and you hang it, all of the fish meat gradually falls, so now the air can get in between all of these lines of red, beautiful Arctic char. And you hang them in the sun with smoke wafting over them to keep the flies away, and you dry it that way for maybe a day or two.
It is the most incredible sushi you’ll ever have in your life.
Why doesn’t it go bad?
The sun cures the outside of the meat, and that stops all of the pathogens from getting inside. It creates a glossy shell on the outside that protects the meat on the inside.
You bring up the subject of pathogens. I know you’ve gotten sick on the show before—what have you contracted while shooting your show?
More often, it’s from water. But I did get a nasty parasite in my mouth one time that created all of these nasty snaking lesions. And I don’t know what gave it to me, but I’m suspicious that it was a turtle I ate on Survivorman in Georgia.
Were you eating the turtle raw?
Well, not cooked well enough it would seem.
What are some of the worst Survivorman meals you’ve had?
Really the worst was while making the series Beyond Survival, which followed Survivorman, where I survived around the world with remote indigenous cultures, and I took part in all of their spiritual ceremonies.
During that series, while I was in Sumatra, I ate a sago larva—a big, white grub—and it was like the worst milk gone bad. And I couldn’t not eat it because I was with my hosts, and it was a matter of honoring them. But it was horrible.
Presumably they were uncooked?
Oh, it was alive even—six inches long and as thick as your thumb. You had to take the head off so it didn’t bite ya.
Do you only eat raw when you don’t have access to fire? Or are there things you know it’s safe to eat without cooking?
If you’re worried about parasites, then you should cook it. But one thing that surprises a lot of people is, you can eat just about anything raw. We don’t in our society because our meat goes from the slaughterhouse, to a packing facility, to a truck, to maybe another truck, to a shelf, to maybe another shelf before it ends up on the shelf you’re going to buy it from. Well, that’s not the meat you want to eat raw.
But when you’re out in a survival situation, or even maybe living Paleolithic, you can eat just about everything completely raw. There are a few things you don’t touch, like a polar bear liver—you can get vitamin A poisoning—but beyond that, all of that meat and various critters—you can eat it raw. And you get far more nutrients raw than if you cook it. Cooking is for flavor, and, when in doubt, killing parasites.
Any hunter will tell you that when you kill an elk or a deer, you can eat the organs right there. I’ve had fresh, raw caribou liver minutes after we’ve shot it, or seal eyeballs.
We are very squeamish about it as a culture, but people used to eat lots of raw meat. We somehow got away from it.
Is there meat that is more delicious raw?
Yeah, some of the ungulates, like caribou, deer liver, caribou liver, and heart, and stuff like that, it’s unbelievable how it tastes. Seal liver. A lot of times, the liver raw is really nice.
Have you ever been really stuck on a certain expedition in terms of what there is to eat?
Oh, all the time. Oftentimes you’re scrambling for food. You end up eating grubs and worms and grasshoppers, because there’s not much else. People think you can go out into a survival situation and catch a big animal without a rifle—not possible—catch a bunch of fish without a fishing rod—not possible.
No situations where you’ve had to bail because there was nothing that was edible?
No, because you can go without food for a long time. I’ve run into more problems running out of water than running out of food. I can go seven to 10 days without food, but you can’t go that long without water.
When you’ve gotten sick on Survivorman, was that because it was really disgusting, or mildly toxic?
More often it’s stuff being mildly toxic—eating the wrong thing and your stomach wanting to purge it. I’ve gotten past plate fright. Once you’ve gone four days without food, if someone tells you a scorpion tastes really good, you’re going to eat the scorpion. I’ve never been sick just because it was gross.
Why aren’t you more concerned about pathogens on these trips?
No, I am concerned, but that doesn’t stop me.
Well, it’s a short life. I want to live life to the fullest, and if part of that is going out and adventuring, excellent. If part of adventuring means getting stomach problems, well, that’s all right. That’s part of the calculated risk I take. I don’t want to get sick—and the worst that happens to me usually is that I get stomach sick. I’ve been curled up in a fetal position, losing it out of both ends on the bathroom floor because of travel belly, but that’s not going to stop me from traveling.
Any other surprisingly good wilderness bites?
I enjoy most of it, actually—scorpion, for example. It’s a bit misleading that the show makes it look like everything tastes horrible, because it doesn’t. The witchetty grub in Australia was six inches long, and white, and as thick as your thumb, but it tasted fantastic!
What did it taste like?
It tasted like a crispy pork rind filled with Thai peanut sauce.
Yeah! And scorpions are pretty good—they’re in the shrimp family.
Of course, there are the obvious ones, like catching a rabbit, which obviously makes for a delicious meal. Or brook trout in Colorado. But sometimes even the creepy crawlies can taste pretty good.
What do you find most difficult about survival food?
Quantity. Getting enough is hard in a survival situation. If you get four arctic char, you get really lucky. Without enough food, you become lethargic, and it becomes hard to get things done.
I know you’ve studied under great survivalists. When did you become comfortable enough to judge for yourself what was edible and what you were willing to risk eating?
I think that most of us can figure out what you can eat and what you can’t—although, I say that, and I’m still baffled when someone will hand me a carton of milk and go, Is that bad? It’s like, Can’t you tell?
Over the years, I’ve come to trust my instincts, and I’m also over plate fright, because I’ve been pleasantly surprised so many times.
It’s funny, because as a kid I was extremely picky, living off toast and jam sandwiches. I’m the opposite now, but it’s been a process.
I sort of get the eeks when I watch you eat a mushroom and say that you’re pretty sure it’s what you thought it was, but fingers crossed.
I pay attention to everything before I pop anything in my mouth. Mostly it’s calculated risk. But, you know, I ate that fish in Alaska that I found on a rock, and I was taking a bit of a chance there.
But the reality is that we can eat a lot more rotten food than people think. We used to have tons of recipes that involved allowing meat to rot. And we were fine with it! Now we turn up our noses at it. There’s a recipe from northern Quebec from the indigenous Montagnais: They would take the skin of the caribou, put all the internal organs from the animal in it, tie up the skin like a bag, hang it in the tree in the heat, let it stay there for two weeks, take it back down, and they would spoon out that rotted mess as a delicacy and eat it.
Did they get sick and have the runs? No, because their stomachs could handle it, as can ours. So when I ate that rotten fish, I cooked it and reasoned that even if it’s a little bit off, I will be fine.
So we should eat more raw or rotten meat?
There’s a big problem with doing that at home, with meat that has already been on two trucks and on four shelves. I would never say do that with food that is domesticated that you got from the grocery store. I’m talking about being out in the wilderness; that’s where you can take your risks on old and rotten and raw food.
Are there survival skills that people can take home with them?
It’s life lessons. Survival stuff that I’ve shown has always been a little bit of a metaphor for life itself. It’s about assessing a problem situation and making proactive decisions based on the knowledge that you gather when you assess yourself. That’s something you have to do in life. It’s about pushing forward through everything that’s an obstacle and making sure you survive.
I have people thank me for getting them through eight months in a hospital bed, or bringing them and their son back together again; one woman thanked me for getting her out of an abusive relationship—how does that happen with a show about survival? Maybe it’s because the lessons learned in survival speak to a larger philosophy and perspective on life.
How would you describe that bigger philosophy?
Addressing life itself. We can’t continue on this planet as we are—it’s not sustainable. My answer is, then, reconnect with the planet. If you’re not sure what to do, go paddle a canoe. Go walk in the forest. Go take your shoes off and feel some dirt beneath your feet. Go sit on the ground. Smell the leaves rotting in the fall.
I don’t have all the answers from a scientific perspective, but I do know that we’re not connected to the planet. One of the ways to reconnect is through eating wild foods.