Finger bowls are, to a large extent, relics of an elegant past. By the 1950s, the appearance of a finger bowl—even on the most elegant dinner tables across the globe—had become worthy of remark. And though they are even more rarely seen today, a gentleman of the world must be familiar with them and their proper usage, for misuse of the finger bowls is perhaps more responsible for social finger-pointing than any other item on a well-appointed dining table.
There are references to silver finger bowls as early as the 13th century; but by the beginning of the 20th century, despite their rising popularity, they were under attack—especially the brass ones used by the restaurants of the day—as being both unsanitary and decadent. In 1913, the Buffalo, New York Health Department claimed that brass finger bowls could not be properly sanitized; and in 1915, the city of Omaha, Nebraska outlawed the use of finger bowls except for those made of single-use, disposable materials such as paper. Then in 1917 and again in 1943, as part of the war efforts, the Food Administration encouraged restaurants to minimize their usage of tableware in general, so finger bowls, which had long been regarded as a formal, ostentatious luxury, was the first casualty of war. Eventually, finger bowls, even in private homes, fell into disuse.
A finger bowl is generally a little smaller and shallower than a the typical soup bowl and is presented half-filled with scented water so that guests may unobtrusively rinse their fingertips of any food aromas or residue—while sitting at the table—before proceeding with the meal. (See “The Desert Course” above).
There are two occasions when finger bowls are likely to be presented at the dinner table: immediately following a course featuring shellfish in the shell, such as lobster or mussels; and nearing the end of the meal, just before the dessert course. After a shellfish course, the finger bowl will be presented on a small, saucer-sized plate, with a cloth doily, usually made of white linen, beneath the bowl. The bowl will contain hot water, usually with a “wagon wheel” of fresh lime or lemon floating atop. When presented just before dessert, the finger bowl, similarly presented, will contain cold water, usually with the petals of fresh flowers (never slices of lemon or lime) floating atop.
But no matter how pretty or delightful, the water in a finger bowl is never to be drunk! Nor are the citrus slices or floral petals to be eaten or removed from the bowl! To do so would precipitate a gentleman’s social demise. Instead, he should dip his fingertips, one hand at a time, into the water so as to gently refresh his hands. But propriety must be exercised in this most delicate, elegant ritual since the gentle washing should never appear to be an aggressive ablution. With moistened fingers, a gentleman may dampen his lips, thereafter using the napkin from his lap to dry his hands and pat-dry his lips.
Some hostesses avoid the whole matter of finger bowls by offering hot towelettes moistened with fragrant water, a practice popular in some Asian countries. (Towelettes are far less likely to be unwittingly drunk or eaten!) Generally, the neatly rolled or folded towelettes are presented on a tray, where they picked up with tongs and presented to each guest, who receives his towel into his hand. The guest then unfurls the towelette, pat-wipes first his lips, then wipes his hands. (A whole, sailor bath-type wipe-down of the face is most inappropriate and is to be avoided). The person distributing the towelettes then makes the rounds again to collect them. Upon being approached by the table assistant, the guest either places the unarranged towelette directly onto the tray or allows the attendant to take the used towelette from his hands with the aid of the tongs. The used towelette should never be placed onto the table. Instead, it should be held in the hands until retrieved by the table assistant. In less formal settings, packaged towelettes are offered. It is best to open the package at its seam so that the used towelette can be fit back into its packaging to be collected and discarded.