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).


Ancient Eaters: Elagabalus, the Roman Doctor Frank-N-Furter (203-222 CE)


To a Roman, Elagabalus’s mustache was one of many characteristics that marked him as a foreigner (and to me, definitely reads as a teenage boy trying to appear grown up). Photo by Carole Raddato (2015)

Higgledy-piggledy, Heliogabalus
Lurched through the Forum, his
Bottom a-wag.

Vainly pretending to
Matters beneath his
Imperial drag 

~Anonymous “double dactyl” poem

If any figure in Roman history could be summed up by the phrase “don’t dream it, be it,” it would be Elagabalus. Also called Heliogabalus, he was Emperor of Rome for just four years in the third century, from the age of 14 until his assassination at 18. Despite his youth and short reign, he managed to develop a reputation for debauchery and excess that makes his predecessors Caligula and Nero look like Buddhist monks. In a long parade of mad tyrants, matricides and horse-lovers, Elagabalus stands out as maybe the wildest Roman Emperor ever. That is, if any of the stories about him are true.

Roman histories tell us that Elagabalus spent all his time and money on lavish entertainments, including elaborate dinner parties. At one of these affairs, guests could expect up to 22 courses, with a menu of everything expensive and rare. Tables were piled high with such delicacies as camel’s heels, peacock tongues and ostrich brains (600 at one banquet alone), not to mention “peas with gold-pieces…and rice with pearls.” The boy-Emperor took a hands-on approach to party-planning, choosing each element carefully for its sensory impact. “He gave summer-banquets in various colours, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer“, while the fish that he ate were cooked in a bluish sauce that preserved their natural colour, as though they were still in the sea-water.” At some parties guests could get in on the fun, as when “he would propose…that they should invent new sauces for giving flavour to the food, and he would offer a very large prize for the man whose invention should please him, even presenting him with a silk garment.”

Recipe contests were just one of the many entertainments Elagabalus devised for his dinner guests, some of which came at their expense. Once he smothered a group of diners beneath an avalanche of rose petals. On several occasions, he unleashed wolves and leopards on people without telling them the animals were tame and harmless. And in between terrorizing his own parties, the teenage Emperor managed to fit in various other crimes, from cross-dressing and sexual deviancy to corruption and blasphemy, as though working his way through a checklist of everything offensive to Ancient Roman sensibilities.


Most of the wild stories about Elagabalus come from Cassius Dio’s Roman History and the multi-authored Augustan History, sources we should take with a hearty helping of salt. Both were written well after the young Emperor’s death and sponsored by enemies of his family. One scholarly analysis determined that only 24% of the Life of Elagabalus section in the Augustan History is reliable historical fact. While Elagabalus was certainly an unpopular Emperor, the real reasons behind his unpopularity were far less outrageous than the sources tell us. Constructed from a handful of reliable crumbs, the true story runs as follows:

Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, first cousin once-removed of the Emperor of Rome, enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the city of Emesa (modern Homs, Syria). The ruling class to which his family belonged was of Roman origin but had adopted Syrian culture. Varius’s native language was Aramaic, and he was raised to worship a local god named El-Gabbal, the Lord of the Mountain, eventually serving as the god’s high priest. When the political scheming of his grandmother and mother led to his being declared Emperor, Varius brought his faith with him to Rome as only a melodramatic teenager could. He had the sacred black meteorite of El-Gabbal enshrined in a grand new temple and demanded the Roman people worship the Lord of the Mountain above all other gods. He later tried to unite the Roman gods to his own through a symbolic marriage ritual, but in the eyes of his subjects the damage had been done, and the Emperor’s popularity plummeted. His power-hungry family decided he was a liability and moved swiftly to replace him with his more tractable and predictable cousin. The eighteen-year old once called Varius was assassinated in a plot organized by his own grandmother. Worship of El-Gabbal in Rome ended with his death.

The story of Elagabalus tells us a lot about how the Roman people saw him as well as how they saw themselves. The Romans were not pleased to have an Emperor who considered himself more Syrian than Roman. They were even less pleased when he tried to impose his Syrian god on them. Elagabalus, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is the Latinized form of El-Gabbal, but he never called himself by that name. After his death, the boy-emperor was so strongly associated with his foreign religion that Romans started using the name of his god to refer to him. It was his foreignness of dress and worship, his being from “the East”, that made the Romans hate Elagabalus. The outlandish stories about him are, at their heart, born of racist Roman stereotypes of Easterners. Opulent and hedonistic. Effeminate and weak, yet also cruel and merciless. Weird sex habits, weird religion, weird clothes and weird food.


The tall tales of Elagabalus simultaneously draw on the Romans’ worst fears about foreigners and present an exaggeration of typical Roman patrician behavior. The Roman upper classes really did serve food and drink imported from far-off places (such as flamingo) as a means of impressing their guests and displaying their wealth in being able to obtain it. Perhaps no Emperor ever actually mixed gold with his peas, but costly dried spices brought in from Asia were the culinary equivalent.

Various Roman sources demonstrate an interest among the upper classes in food as entertainment, and food accompanied by entertainment. In the comedic Satyricon, sausages and cakes spill out from the belly of a whole roasted pig, to the delight of the audience, while the cookbook Apicius offers recipes with disguised ingredients meant to inspire diners to guess what’s on their plates, such as “patina of anchovies without anchovies“. Elagabalus’s dinner parties are again described in keeping with real Roman traditions, but distorted and exaggerated to extremity. The bizarre and sadistic games that followed his grand meals are a corrupted reflection of the poetry recitation, dance and music that accompanied a real Roman Imperial banquet.

That food figures so prominently in the legends of Elagabalus is no accident. The young Emperor’s apparent devotion to dining would have been frowned upon by a Roman reader as further evidence of his lack of manly restraint and thus, his unsuitability for the throne. Traditional Roman ideals emphasized frugality and moderation and decried the vice of decadence (luxuria), in food as in other areas of society. A decent, honest Roman man, particularly an Emperor, ought to be working hard and fighting for the pride of Rome instead of fooling around with fripperies like crafting recipes. Elagabalus’s keen interest in food was just another example of his impropriety, no less grave a violation of social norms than his dressing in drag or refusing to worship the Roman gods.

There are two Elagabaluses: one the serious-minded and deeply religious boy Varius, the other a mythologized caricature. Yet ironically, it is this second, false Elagabalus, the product of propaganda and hearsay, that has captivated later peoples ever since he was first decried by the Romans. Elagabalus’s rockstar image has made him the subject of numerous operas, plays, poems and paintings. This one from 1906 by French artist Gustav-Adolfe Mossa is my favorite; the title is simply Lui, “Him.” And while I acknowledge that the Elagabalus of popular imagination is a fantasy, I have to admit there is something alluring about it. Part supervillain, part queer icon. A mad genius, a gleeful deviant, a culinary experimenter. A “wild and untamed thing” who tried to make the world match the beauty of his own imagination.