The finger bowl has become rather scarce at fancy tables, except perhaps in the most traditional fine dining settings. When eating in an elegant restaurant or country club, how does a proper diner use this dish to clean his or her fingers after a delectable entrée?
What is the finger bowl?
The finger bowl is a round dish (resembling a shallow china soup bowl), which is placed on top of a larger plate (like a big saucer). In the past, uniformed servers presented dining room patrons with finger bowls to daub their digits before dessert. The finger bowl has nearly disappeared in current dining rooms, but it may occasionally be found in the finest eating establishments. Certain enthusiasts of high cuisine have called for the resurrection of the finger bowl. Savvy antique hunters may uncover finger bowls, as they search through collections of old china.
How is the finger bowl used?
The finger bowl is filled with warm water. Often, a lemon wedge is placed on the underplate. A few lemon wheels may be floated in the water itself. The diner dips his or her fingers gently into the warm water to rinse them lightly. Splashing, swirling, and swishing in the finger bowl are considered improper. The finger bowl is not intended as a thorough bath or cleansing, but merely as a means of preparing the hands for the final courses of the meal. The finger bowl is usually accompanied by a fresh napkin or cloth, with which the diner may wipe his or her moistened hands. This cloth is removed by the waiter, along with the finger bowl and underplate. Traditionally, a finger bowl is presented after the entree or main course. This is set before a diner immediately after his or her main entree plate has been removed.
What is the purpose of the finger bowl?
The idea is for the diner to clean his or her fingers, particularly after a sticky or messy meal, such as barbecued ribs, buttery corn-on-the-cob, sticky fried chicken, or shellfish. Shortly after the finger bowl, a palate-cleansing dish (such as a fruit sorbet) is often introduced. Or the finger bowl may be followed immediately by the dessert course.
The finger bowl was once the epitome of hand washing, but after the meal.
Modern-day diners understand the importance of hand washing before meals and even throughout the day to keep germs and sickness at bay. This practice of personal hygiene aims more at the prevention of infection and illness than at etiquette. However, those with the most discerning palates may appreciate the mid-meal practice of the finger bowl. Because the lemon and fresh, warm water may remove food residue, flavor, and aromas from the fingers, diners may go on to enjoy the late courses of a meal without distraction.
One never forgets a finger bowl faux pas.
When we were young children in elementary school, perhaps six and eight years old, we went out for dinner after church with our grandparents at a fancy fish restaurant. My brother brought a classmate along. After the main course, during which the two boys gorged themselves on fresh lobster, the waiter set out the steaming finger bowls, fresh lemon wedges and all. My brother’s young friend picked up his finger bowl and drank it. My grandfather chuckled, but my grandmother was appalled.
Oddly, however, my brother’s friend was not the first to sip the water from a finger bowl. In fact, this occurrence has been so prevalent throughout the history of proper dining that an etiquette protocol actually applies. If a guest mistakenly should pick up his finger bowl and attempt to drink from it, then a cordial host or hostess is expected to do likewise. The main objective of proper etiquette and hospitality is to make others feel comfortable and at home, even after (Gulp!) a finger bowl gaffe that may seem tough to swallow.