Party Pointers: How to Use Finger Bowls

If you think finger bowls sound like relics from a time long past, you might be right. But actually there are modern uses for them, so it never hurts to know how to use finger bowls! You don’t want to be the person often joked about who thought his finger bowl was soup being served and drank from it.

A finger bowl is a small bowl of tepid water used for rinsing one’s fingers between courses during formal served meals of several courses. Before the early 1800’s, guests needed to wash their hands before and after meals, because forks were not used and they ate with their hands. Prior to the introduction of the fork, diners passed a large, water-filled bowl with a towel to clean their hands. By the late 1800’s, forks and napkins were common on most tables. The Victorians who were obsessed with class and etiquette then developed very strict rules of dining etiquette for the upper classes which included the use of individual finger bowl.

If a guest didn’t know how to use the finger bowl properly, it was assumed that he/she had not been taught proper manners. The finger bowl remained in use in Ireland, England and the American South longer than in other places, but it’s general usage waned after World War II. But just in case someone invites you to a formal meal, and you are served a finger bowl, here’s all you need to know:

The finger bowl will be served on a dessert plate with a paper or cloth doily under it. They typically are brought out after a fruit course or at the end of the meal before the dessert. You dip the fingertips of one hand at a time in the water, flutter your fingers gently and then dry them on the napkin low in your lap. After that, carefully move the doily and water-filled bowl to the top left corner of your placesetting near the bread plate. If a dessert spoon and fork are served on the plate with the finger bowl, before you clean your fingertips, place the fork to the left of your dessert plate and the spoon to the right. That’s all there is to it–you are ready for dessert!

For modern entertaining, fingerbowls are still practical, especially if you have been served fried chicken, ribs, barbeque, grilled skewers of meats and vegetables, or corn-on-the corn. Guests obviously can’t lick their fingers in public, and they often are afraid they will ruin your cloth napkins with their greasy fingers.

Hostesses today may serve small china or glass bowls with warm water to their guests as a special thoughtful touch for their guests’ convenience. Accompaniments to the water might be slices of lemon or orange, sprigs of fresh rosemary, or rose petals with a few drops of rosewater.

Enjoy your new tidbit of etiquette trivia and share it with your friends!


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