Finger Bowls

What ever happened to finger bowls?   Finger bowl — a bowl of water that dinner guests use to rinse their fingers.

What do we have now, wet wipes.  Really?????

There is no comparison in my mind.

Wet wipes require you to open the package it is contained in. That in itself can be challenging for some of us.  Do we use our teeth to open it?  or a knife? Or do we rip it open with our hands?  Bottom line, opening a wet wipe is not a slam dunk.

Then, once opened, you have to unfold the wipe.  Once you have wiped your hands, then you have to do something with the wipe which is now dirty and needs to be thrown away.  But, there is no place to throw it away when you are sitting at a dinner table, either in a restaurant or in someone’s home.  No one provides waste baskets under the dining room table for individuals to have a place to dispense their used wet wipes.

Now, compare this to…

Let’s be honest.  There is an elegance associated with using a finger bowl.  There is something special about a round, usually clear see-through bowl sitting either in the center of the dining room table or alongside your place setting.  The bowl of water usually has a slice or two of lemon in the water, or a flower or flower leaves or a sprig of mint may be floating in it.  It not only cleans the fingers, but also eliminates the odor of food from the hands.

It is a statement from the server or the cook or the host that we want you, the guest, to have the best dining experience you can have.  It is something extra, something extra special.

At the same time the finger bowl is unbelievably functional.  All one has to do is lightly dip your fingers – one hand at a time — into the laced with lemon slices, lukewarm, half-filled bowl of water.  Most finger bowls are 4.5 – 5 inches in diameter.  Once immersed, you pull out your cleansed fingers and daintily dry them off with your napkin.  How simple is that?

When was the last time you sat down for a meal and there was a finger bowl on the table?   Finger bowls have somehow faded from our dining tables.

Finger bowls were much more prevalent in the 1800’s.  they began to decline in use during World War I when the US Food Administration instructed restaurants to do away with excess silver, bone china, and glassware.

During the heyday of finger bowls, there was an accepted etiquette surrounding their use.  In a more formal meal, the finger bowl was usually brought out when dessert was served to each individual’s place setting.  After desert the guest will use the finger bowl before excusing themselves from the table. At more informal meals, the finger bowl could be brought out at any time during the meal.

Further, the proper etiquette is to daintily dab the tips of your fingers into the bowl, not your entire hand. And the lemon in the bowl is not supposed to be squeezed or even touched.

You may ask, why Neil are you talking about finger bowls.  Last evening I went to a crab boil dinner event where all the guests were using their hands to devour the phenomenal Dungeness crab meat.

Even when using all the tools one normally uses to get at the crab meat located in its legs and torso your fingers and hands get overrun with juices and smells from the crab.  What to do?   As I looked around my table for a finger bowl, all I could find were two little packages of wet wipes.  O my God, I said to myself.  This situation needs a finger bowl.

I asked the waitress if that would be possible, and sure enough in a few minutes she delivered a large finger bowl for all of us to use.  It felt great to put my fingers into the bowl of water which had slices of lemon.  I asked myself after this, what has happened to finger bowls.  I realized that I miss them.

It is one thing to have finger bowls at a very fancy dinner.  But it is another thing to have finger bowls available when you are eating finger foods during a more informal meal.  Corn on the cob, fried chicken, asparagus, clams and mussels, Dungeness crabs, to name a few.

Imagine what a thrill it would be for your guests if you provided finger bowls the next time you served dinner at your home or apartment.

Or, for that matter, what would happen if the next time you are in a restaurant that supplies you with some wet wipes, you instead ask the waiter or waitress if it would be possible to have a finger bowl instead.

I am all for a revival of finger bowls!


5 thoughts on “Finger Bowls”

  1. I remember them well. They had them in the grand dining room of the South Shore Country Club in Chicago.

    Which is now a public park.

  2. My Grandfather related this story to me 70 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.

    “Queen Victoria reigned over Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until she died in 1901. I heard a story about her recently that made me stop and think.

    As the story goes, Queen Victoria was hosting a guest from a foreign country. At the end of the meal, finger bowls of water were passed around so that everyone could clean their hands. The guest of honour had never seen such a thing so he lifted it to his mouth and drank it. Stunned silence passed through the room until the Queen raised her finger bowl to her mouth and drank. And then all the guests followed suit.

    Whether it’s an urban legend or a fact, it is such a great example of acceptance and making people feel that they are perfect just the way they are.

    There will always be people who would shout from the rooftops at that moment, “What are you doing? That’s not for you to drink!” But those people are sad inside and live their life climbing higher on those they push down. May we all strive to be people who drink from the finger bowl and show the person who “made the mistake” that they are one of us.”

  3. I completely concur with a comment in your blog. Finger bowls are more of a “slam dunk”….(ahem) than wet wipes! ;-)) Hah!

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