Finger bowls. I’ve always associated them with formal dining, elegant place settings, and fine china. This impression, based on extensive reading of historical novels, was confirmed when I did a little research. I accidentally wandered into the thickets of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette and found it such fascinating reading that I very nearly didn’t come out again. (Just in case you need to know the correct precedence for seating guests, the appropriate division of responsibilities between the butler and the housekeeper, or the proper way to address an envelope or a Duke, you can find the book here.)
Emily (I suppose I should call her Mrs. Post, but after half an hour of browsing through her crisp prose I feel as if we know each other) seems to assume finger bowls are standard at formal dinners, merely describing two different ways of presenting them with the dessert course. She mentions as a matter of course that the finger bowl is always placed on a doily, which may be round or square but “must always be cream or white.” She also says, “the finger bowl is less than half filled with cold water; and at dinner parties, a few violets, sweet peas, or occasionally a gardenia, is put in it. (A slice of lemon is never seen outside of a chop-house where eating with the fingers may necessitate the lemon in removing grease. Pretty thought!)”
Emily’s parenthetical shudder notwithstanding, in the circumstances recently where I used a finger bowl for the first time, the lemon might have been useful.
We were invited to dinner at the home of a couple who have lived abroad and are familiar with a variety of dining styles. I was slightly intimidated at first to see, at each plate, a pretty little blue-and-white finger bowl. Then the hostess informed us that the main course was barbequed pork ribs. She encouraged us by both word and example to eat them with her fingers, making full use of the finger bowls.
I’m not sure Emily would have approved, but the finger bowls in this instance were utterly practical. The process went like this:
• Pick up rib with fingers and eat the meat, making sure to gnaw the last delicious bites off of the bone.
• Lick fingers (optional, but highly recommended—the sauce was tasty).
• Paddle fingers gently in finger bowl.
• Wipe clean fingers on napkin.
• Pick up fork with sauce-free fingers and take a few bites of veggies and rice.
• While fingers are still clean, pick up serving fork and stab another pair of ribs.
• Repeat and rinse, as often as appropriate—but not too often, since there were chocolate brownies for dessert.
Now that I understand the practical value of finger bowls in non-formal settings, I may just have to try this at home. They could be especially useful for family dinners with small children at the table. Just image the convenience of having finger bowls at hand for toddlers to use after they finish eating spaghetti with their fingers, scooping up applesauce with their forks, dipping their green beans in ketchup, or dredging the noodles out of their soup by hand. They could rinse off their sticky little fingers before wiping them on their own pants, the tablecloth, or their grandmother’s new sweater. This could be the most useful dinner-table accessory for little ones since the unabridged dictionary.
It wouldn’t even be necessary to put violets or sweet peas in toddlers’ finger bowls. They would decorate their own—not only with peas, but with other attractive accents like lumps of mashed potatoes, rejected bites of chicken, stray strings of spaghetti, and the entire contents of the salt shaker.
Of course, being creative little souls, no doubt they would also find alternative uses for the water in the bowls: drinking it, using it to finger paint on the table, spitting it at one another, or pouring it onto their plates, the table, their laps, their heads, or the floor.
Oops. Maybe this idea needs a bit of refining. Besides, I just remembered one more thing about those historical novels that refer to finger bowls. All the elegantly dressed people at those formal multi-course dinners, making refined conversation while the maids and footmen serve them so correctly, are adults. The children, duly supervised by nurses and nannies, eat in the nursery.