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Castaway Cuisine, Fictional and Real

How would you survive if stranded on a desert island with only your wits and the resources at hand?

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Gilligan's Island

The Skipper got a bite! Image courtesy of Everett Collection

Have you ever fantasized about how you would survive if stranded on a desert island with only your wits and the resources at hand? So have a lot of screenwriters, novelists and television producers. Sadly, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of one of the classics of the castaway genre, “Gilligan’s Island,” died yesterday at the age of 94. He also created “The Brady Bunch”, which qualifies him as a hero of my generation. Although they were already off the air by the 1970s, I must’ve watched enough reruns of those shows to have every episode seared into my subconscious.

So in honor of Mr. Schwartz’s passing, here’s a look at how castaways, real and imagined, have managed to find enough to eat—or not.

“Gilligan’s Island”

When a three-hour boat tour turned into a three-season TV run, seven castaways—Gilligan, the Skipper, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, the professor and Maryann—had to learn how to survive on a deserted South Seas island. Somehow the island was not remote enough to prevent guest stars from dropping in frequently without ever managing to rescue the marooned seven.

Food wasn’t scarce, though it took some ingenuity and the occasional suspension of the laws of science. There were coconuts, of course, but there was also the episode where Gilligan tried to make pancake syrup from tree sap and ended up discovering a powerful glue that they hoped would allow them to repair the S. S. Minnow. Another time, a crate of vegetable seeds washed ashore. They were discovered to be radioactive, and the resulting vegetable garden provided eaters with special powers.

Robinson Crusoe

Ingenuity was also key to survival in the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe about a shipwrecked mariner who lived 28 years on an island near South America—also key was a good bit of luck. Based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, the tale of Crusoe explains in detail how he learned to kill, forage and grow his own food, none of which would have been possible had he not landed on a remarkably well-stocked island. At first Crusoe dined on a sea turtle and its eggs. Then he discovered wild goats, which he penned and raised for milk, cheese, butter and meat. He also found enough variety of fruits, vegetables and grains to keep his island larder well provisioned until he was finally rescued and returned to England.

“Lost”

The necessities of life were the least of the concerns of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, who had to contend with smoke monsters, the hostile “Others” and all manner of metaphysical perils on their tropical island. Food, on the other hand, was no problem, at least once they found the fully stocked hatch supplied by the Dharma Initiative, a mysterious scientific research project. Then there were the fish biscuits dispensed to Sawyer and Kate when they were captured and imprisoned in a polar bear cage by the Others. In case you feel like whipping yourself up some TV snacks while watching the series on DVD, the Geeky Chef offers a lookalike recipe that is, thankfully, fish-free.

Cast Away

Probably the most realistic of the genre, at least in terms of the availability of food, the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks shows how difficult living off the tropical land and sea could be. As the lone survivor of a plane crash, he survived mostly on coconuts (a natural laxative) until he became skilled enough to catch fish. The jubilant scene of him finally starting a fire—which would allow him to cook his food—after hours of trying is a great movie moment. Four years later he was rescued and thrown a lavish homecoming party. The look on his face when he saw a heaping mound of lobster and crab legs was a reminder of how easy we landlubbers have it.

True Tales

Most real-life castaways don’t fare so well unless there are special circumstances. Alexander Selkirk, Defoe’s inspiration, was intentionally marooned on Más a Tierra Island, 400 miles off the coast of Chile, rather than continue on what he rightly believed to be a doomed ship voyage with the rest of the crew. He chose his exile spot well, and brought some handy tools, like a musket, that made island life more manageable. He survived for more than four years before he was rescued.

But even with a starter kit of tools, seeds and water, 18th-century Dutch sailor Leendert Hasenbosch survived only about six months on Ascension Island, where he was sentenced for sodomy. His sad diary, found after his death, details his diet of turtles and seabirds and having to drink his own urine for lack of water.

The moral of the story: if you’re going to be shipwrecked, you’ll have better luck if stranded on a fictional island.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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