Dinner Dates: Onfim (12th – 13th century CE)


“I am a wild beast.”
~ The label of Onfim’s self-portrait (ca. 1220 CE)

Through simple lines and geometric shapes, the artist explores realities and possibilities, the mundane and the fantastical. In one drawing, seven children stand in line, holding hands. In another, knights on horseback trample fallen bodies, brandishing swords and spears. One self-portrait depicts the artist as a fire-breathing chimera. Another shows a mounted warrior driving a spear into an enemy half his size. The victor is labelled “Onfim.

These are the doodles of a creative child, made on the backs and in the margins of his schoolwork eight hundred years ago.


Onfim was born in the late 12th or early 13th century in the city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia. At the time of Onfim’s birth, Novgorod had been an independent democratic city-state for about a hundred years. The Republic of Novgorod would survive and prosper for several more centuries, growing so much in power, wealth and prestige that its proud residents referred to their city as though it were a person: “His Majesty, Lord Novgorod the Great.” Veliky Novgorod (Great Novgorod) is still the city’s official name in Russia.

Lord Novgorod the Great had an unusually high level of literacy for the period, at least partly due to a free and accessible source of paper: the region’s abundant birch trees. Novgorodians used them as living memo pads, peeling off the papery bark and writing messages on it. Called beresty, these birch-bark notes were discarded after use, at which point many would be preserved by the unique mixture of clay and bacteria in the local soil. Since 1950, over 1100 beresty have been discovered in Novgorod, and more get dug up every year. Written in a Slavic vernacular called Old Novgorodian that is distinct from the literary language of the time, beresty offer a glimpse at everyday life in Medieval Russia. They are not political discourses or religious texts but shopping lists, love-notes, invitations, and even children’s drawings. That’s where Onfim comes in.

At the time Onfim made his drawings, he is estimated to have been six or seven years old. It’s possible he never survived to adulthood, like some 30-50% of Medieval children. But assuming he did survive–what then? If these discarded drawings could be shown to the grown-up Onfim, he probably wouldn’t remember making them. He might even be embarrassed to know that out of everything he did and created during his lifetime, history remembers him as a little boy who zoned out during class. Onfim might have become almost anyone, but here are the details we know for certain about his life:

Images of Onfim’s drawings from Wikimedia Commons.

  • He was raised Christian. Aside from copying out the alphabet, his schoolwork includes quotations from the Book of Psalms and snatches of prayer, such as “Lord, help your servant Onfim.”
  • He had a family. He drew and labelled his mother and father alongside two children chasing each other around a tree, perhaps himself and a sibling. Another drawing of a child next to an adult, both figures dressed for war, may depict Onfim’s fantasy of becoming a warrior like his dad.
  • He had a male friend or sibling named Danilo. The self-portrait of Onfim as a beast carries a sign in its claws that says Poklon ot Onfima ko Danile, “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo.” It might have been a gift, or even a note passed during class.


The earliest Russian cookbook dates to 1547, centuries after Onfim, but we have a general idea of the diet of a Medieval Russian peasant. Onfim’s family dinners would have been hearty, uncomplicated and mostly vegetarian. Cows provided dairy, while foraged berries and mushrooms supplemented home-grown vegetables and grain. Turnip and cabbage were important crops, as was kasha or buckwheat, a botanical weirdo of a plant dubbed a “pseudocereal” because it has grain-like seeds but is not a true grain. Novgorod is a lakeside city, and fish was another important food source, especially on days of religious abstention from meat. The church calendar set the rhythm of Onfim’s diet, with some form of fasting practiced more than 60% of the year.


In the Russian Orthodox calendar it’s currently the middle of the Great Lent, the longest and strictest fasting period, when followers abstain totally from animal products, olive oil and wine. Kasha porridge is traditionally seasoned with butter, but I left it unseasoned to reflect the Lenten fast.


The Lord is a giant who stands at the edge of the waters, towering over the birch trees. Like the giants in Grandmother’s stories; like Novgorod the Great. He wears a helmet and carries a sword, a real one like Father’s that Onfim is not allowed to touch. Knights and heroes and Father blur together in Onfim’s mind into one figure, larger than life.

Today, Onfim used a big stick to draw him in the snow by the lakeshore: the great man, the god-city-father, resplendent in armor. But before he finished, Danilo came and found him, and they broke the stick into two swords and became Ilya Muromets dueling the sorcerer Koschei until it was time for dinner.

When Father has finished the prayer, they begin to eat. There are still four weeks of fasting ahead, and Onfim is growing impatient. Curling his fingers into claws under the table, he decides to become an animal to help himself finish the meal. Beasts gobbled their feed and didn’t miss the taste of butter, or caviar, or berries with fresh cream. The steam rising from his porridge mingles with Onfim’s memory of exhaling vapor in the snow. He is awash in the breath of dragons.

I am a wild beast, he thinks. He can see it so clearly! He will have to draw it later.

Another of Onfim’s self-portraits. He is also known by the Latinized name Anthemius of Novgorod, which makes him sound like a wise philosopher monk instead of a doodling seven year-old.

Patina de Rosis [Baked Brains & Roses] (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

img_5800.jpg“Take roses fresh from the flower bed, strip off the leaves, remove the white from the petals and put them in the mortar; pour over some fish sauce and rub fine. Add a glass of fish sauce and strain the juice through the colander. This done, take four cooked calf’s brains, skin them and remove the nerves; crush eight scruples of pepper moistened with the juice and rub with the brains; thereupon break eight eggs, add a glass of wine, a glass of raisin wine and a little oil. Meanwhile grease a pan, place it on the hot ashes or in the hot bath in which pour the above described material; when the mixture is cooked in the double boiler, sprinkle it with ground pepper and serve.”
~ De re coquinaria (Apicius) Book 4, Chapter 2, ca. 5th century CE

I’m a big fan of eating brains.

My Roman ancestors felt the same way. The Roman cookbook Apicius contains recipes for brain sausages, brain-stuffed squash fritters and rose patina (patina de rosis), a baked dish of scrambled brain and eggs, flavored with roses.

Except among zombies and evil meteors, eating brains is far less popular globally than it once was. Modern science has found brains to be very high in cholesterol, and also tarnished their reputation by associating them with a deadly epidemic. That would be mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In the 1990s, a BSE outbreak in the UK caused a global panic, leading to the deaths of over 200 people and the slaughter of 4.4 million potentially-infected cattle.

Caused by the malfunctioning of DNA proteins called prions, BSE results in holes in the victim’s brain tissue (hence the name “spongiform”), leading to neural degeneration and death. It can be contracted from eating the meat and especially the brain of an infected animal, and transmission is unaffected by cooking. Which raises a reasonable question–didn’t the brain-craving Romans suffer from mad cow disease? Not exactly.

A Medieval copy of Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, Vegetius’s guide to veterinary medicine. The prion disease of goats and sheep mentioned within might be scrapie, which was formally described by science in 1732. Photo by Sailko (2013).

BSE is not the only prion disease, and similar livestock illnesses are described by ancient writers such as Hippocrates in 400 BCE and Vegetius, who lived at the same time when Apicius was composed (4th and 5th centuries CE). But most prion diseases cannot pass from animal to human, making mad cow disturbingly unique. There is no ancient account of a person contracting a prion disease, although Hippocrates mistakenly conflated prion disease in animals with epilepsy in humans because of their similar symptoms.

BSE was first identified in 1986, and its development and spread were directly linked to the industrialization of 20th-century farming. Undesirable bits from slaughtered cattle, including their brains, were ground up and fed to living cattle as a protein supplement called MBM or “meat and bone meal”, inadvertently infecting the animals with prion disease (and giving me grisly flashbacks to Soylent Green and the “soap” from Cloud Atlas). Because of the ’90s BSE outbreak, most countries have banned the use of MBM in feed for ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cows and sheep, although it is still an ingredient in commercial pet food.  As a further precaution, since prion diseases do not manifest until adulthood, it is now illegal in many countries to sell brain from an adult cow. Which is to say that this recipe, which uses calf brains, is just about as safe as it was in Roman times.


The sweet wine in the original Roman recipe, called passum, was made from raisins, making it a type of straw wine. Passum is still made in Italy today under the slightly-different name of passito. You can also use marsala, sherry, or Manischewitz.


The main ingredient, looking exactly how you would expect.

Apicius provides some unusually specific instructions about incorporating roses into this dish: take fresh roses, “cut off the white” (presumably separate the petals from the flowerheads), grind with fish sauce and strain. I attempted this with fresh roses and their flavor/scent did not carry over into the fish sauce, so I ended up using rosewater (or rose tea), which I made by soaking dried rose petals in hot water.

-2 calf’s or pig’s brains (available, fresh or frozen, from halal butchers and some Mexican or Asian grocery stores)
-4 beaten eggs
-1/3 cup rosewater
-1/3 cup fish sauce
-1/2 cup sweet cooking wine
-1 teaspoon black pepper
-rose petals for serving (optional)

Rinse the brains in cold water and pat dry. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, lower the heat and simmer the brains until they are gray and a fork can pierce them easily (about 10 minutes).

In a blender or food processor, combine brains with all the other ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid into a pie dish greased with olive oil.

Apicius instructs the chef to cook the dish by placing it in termospodio, “in the embers.” You can use a double boiler to replicate the even, gentle heat of hot coals. I balanced my 9-inch pie dish on top of a cast-iron pan filled with water and added a lid.

Cook the patina over low heat for 40-45 minutes, until a fork inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with rose petals and more black pepper.


The flavor of brain resembles liver mousse, rich and creamy. The roses are an interesting addition, with a subtle flavor balanced by the sweetness of the wine. Like many baked Roman patinae, this one is soft and wet enough to require a spoon. Eat it by itself or with bread, while it’s still hot (nobody likes cold brains).