The Miser’s Unbearable Tightness of Being

The Miser, Thomas Couture 1876

A bowl of soup would have spared the life of Osterwald. A crust of bread would have kept the Berliner Danden from wasting away.

To what depths of destitution had Osterwald and Danden sunk that they would die in such a needlessly agonizing manner? The answer is, none at all. Both men were rich – indeed perhaps fatally so, each unwilling to part with the few shillings necessary to secure their sustenance.

Though he did not share Osterwald and Danden’s fortunes, John Overs certainly gave them a run for their money when it came to world-class miserliness. Overs never allowed quality to trump savings; only the moldiest marrow bones would he buy for his daily broth, which he no doubt needed in order to soften the stale bread that was his other staple. On the subject of Overs, Frederick Somner Merryweather writes in his Lives and Anecdotes of Misers (1850) that the old skinflint “would buy meat so tainted that even his dog would refuse it.” This squeamishness on the canine’s part Overs treated with contempt. He would chide the hound, calling it “a dainty cur,” one that was “better fed than taught.” Otherwise unfazed by this show of ungratitude, Overs would help himself to his mongrel’s miserable portion.

Such obduracy Overs extended to include his two-legged fellow creatures. So avaricious was he that he would feign death so that his servants would not “be so unnatural as to partake of food whilst his body was above ground, but would lament his loss, and observe a rigid fast.” But rather than lament the death of their master, the servants threw open his cupboards and “indulged in huge slices of cheese. ” So joyful were they that they “even ventured to cast aside the parings, and to take copious draughts of the miser’s ale.” Wrapped in his death shroud, Overs could only lie mutely by and suffer “their mutinous disrespect.”

Yet Overs found he could endure this saturnalia but briefly. Enraged by the pillaging of his larder he started up, intending to chastise his perfidious servants. Thinking he was seeing Over’s ghost, one of them caught hold of an oar, and smashed the poor miser’s brains from his head. The servant, however, never suffered punishment for his action. A novel bit of legal reasoning secured his acquittal. It was determined that Overs, “who thought only to counterfeit death, occasioned it in earnest,” and was therefore “the prime cause of his own death.” The festivities, Merryweather happily reports, continued unabated.

Should a spirit of thrift take hold of you, consider preparing this casserole known as Ffest Y Cybydd, or “The Miser’s Feast,” the recipe for which appears in Bobby Freeman’s guide to Welsh cuisine, First Catch Your Peacock (1996).

The Miser’s Feast (Ffest Y Cybydd)

Cover the bottom of a saucepan with peeled potatoes (whole) and a sliced onion, with a little salt. Cover with water and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, place on top of the potatoes and onion a few slices of bacon or a piece of ham, replace the lid and allow to simmer till the potatoes are cooked, when most of the water will be absorbed.

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