How Snails, Hermit Crabs, and White Rice Changed the ‘Survivor’ Winner’s Relationship with Food
Mike Gabler appreciates food more than ever after 26 days of brutal challenges, coconuts, and pinching crabs
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Heart valve specialist Mike Gabler and winner of Survivor season 43 (yes, 43) never wants to see another coconut again.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Gabler is the second-oldest Survivor winner, finishing the game at 51 years-old. That wasn’t the only history he made this season, though. For the first time in Survivor history, Gabler pledged to donate the entire $1 million prize to veterans in need to honor his father, who was an Army Reserve Green Beret. He’s in the process of selecting the nonprofits that will receive the funds.
A longtime fan of the show, Gabler applied in 2020 as a bucket list item to check off before he turned 50 and was thrilled when he was accepted. To prepare for what he knew would be a food-scarce experience, Gabler packed on 10 extra pounds. At home, he subsisted on a mostly plant-based diet and was prepared to eat whatever he had to on the island because, let’s face it, this is Survivor.
What Do Contestants Eat on Survivor?
Even as a regular viewer of the show, Gabler didn’t anticipate the turmoil that would be the first few days on the Survivor camp in Fiji. Contestants are divided into tribes and dropped off at a desert location to set up camp all on their own – with no help or resources – .
“The first day there [my tribe] collectively shared one coconut together,” he says. “It was one big husk and we hacked into it. We were really sloppy at first, so all that precious coconut milk spilled out, and we ate the coconut meat raw.”
However, because they’d won a cast iron pot and machete during a challenge, Gabler and his tribe could get creative with their coconut recipes. They would open one, chop up the meat and brown it on top of the cast iron pot’s lid, dubbing it ‘coconut popcorn’ because of its familiar flavor to the staple snack. The tribe would also boil seawater in the cast iron pot, adding in coconut, as well as snails they picked off the beach. Gabler wasn’t fully aware of what kind they were, but he remembers them as a great source of protein. He and his tribe would collect 10-20 snails at a time and put them into their coconut seawater broth to boil them. Coconut snail broth was an absolute staple.
“When you’re that hungry, you can taste the fat and the salt, [because] your olfactory senses are that good,” Gabler says. “You could taste things that would otherwise be bland. ”
Another delicacy found on the beach were tiny hermit crabs, which no one even considered eating—until the tribe became hungry enough. When snails became scarce, hermit crab broth was the next best thing.
Gabler hunted for Ghost crabs, a semi terrestrial crab that would come up onto the beach around 3 a.m. and pinch any contestants who opted to sleep under the stars. However, the crabs were fast, so catching them by hand wasn’t an efficient hunting method. Instead, Gabler used himself as live bait and dug a six-inch moat around his body. When the crabs inevitably crept up to investigate him, he’d spring up and surprise them. The crabs would fall into the moat and Gabler was able to spear them with a stick.
“I would nail a couple of them and then barbecue them on top of the cast iron’s lid,” Gabler says. “The others ate their legs, and then I would eat the body.”
What Was a Survivor Reward Like?
On the show, Survivor contestants compete in daily challenges that push their physical and mental limits. The winner of the challenge is awarded either immunity, protecting them from elimination, or a reward.
Rewards could be tools, equipment for camp, advantages in the next challenge—or food.,. After one challenge, Gabler’s team won a fruit platter of green grapes, pineapples, mangos, pomegranates, and bananas.
“We toasted the grapes and one by one popped them into our mouths,” Gabler says. “The flavors were explosive after eating hermit crabs, snails and coconut for so long. You could almost hear color.”
Gabler says the sugar and carbohydrates drastically improved his mood. He felt like his brain started to work again.
How Survivor Changed Gabler’s Relationship with Food
Gabler’s first real meal after getting off the Survivor island was a bacon cheeseburger with crispy fries and a cold Jack Daniels and Coke.
“It was insane, like rainbows and shooting stars were coming out of my eyes,” Gabler says. “It was the rich protein of the beef, the fat of the bacon, the salt, the sugar from the Coke… Insane.”
But his enjoyment was short-lived. Gabler was only able to finish about half the burger because his stomach wasn’t used to the amount of food.
“The problem is that your stomach is tiny so you can’t handle it all,” he says. “It was actually a little bit tricky keeping it down, but I did.”
Once his digestion returned to normal Gabler realized how his relationship with food had changed after returning from Survivor.
“I respect food more. I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “I also know I don’t need as much food as I had before the show.”
Gabler now understands that food is fuel. He’s aware of what sort of meals and snacks will give him the best energy for a long day of surgeries at his practice. For example, in the past, he would start his day with a large breakfast, but he now opts for coffee and a handful of nuts, like almonds, peanuts or macadamia nuts.
Fans of Survivor may know that, on the island, rice is everything. Gabler says on the rare occasions when his team won it in a challenge or as a reward, they savored every grain because it had valuable carbs. Now, at home in Idaho, Gabler still fosters an appreciation for all kinds of rice (wild, brown, white, jasmine) and includes it in most of his dinners, along with a variety of beans.
The biggest change in Gabler’s palate since returning to Idaho? His aversion to coconuts.
“Coconut, oh man… “ Gabler says. “I ate so much of it on the island… I’m good now.”
Of course, he would get over his coconut aversion and eat it again if he ever went back on the show. That’s how you know Gabler is a true survivor.