There’s something about a fingerbowl that make me laugh. Living most of my life in the Ozarks, I had no reason to believe I’d ever engage in the elegant ritual of finger bathing. But I have. And there are rules I learned the hard way.
My first encounter with these dainty bowls of water was during the nineties in the East Room of the White House. We had just finished our main course. The plates had been whisked away and replaced by a dessert plate with a doily in the center on which sat a small bowl of water.
Floating atop the water were two aromatic rose petals. When I looked bewildered, my seatmate, a cabinet Secretary, came to my rescue, perhaps sensing that in south Missouri I had not encountered many finger bowls.
“The first time I came to a White House dinner,” he said, “the person next to me gave instructions to the entire table, so I’ve always felt compelled to do the same.” With that, he launched into the rules of finger bowl etiquette, including the story of Queen Victoria, who once drank from her finger bowl in order not to embarrass an honored guest, who had mistaken the lemon-water for a beverage.
“It’s very simple. You just dabble the fingertips in the bowl—one hand at a time—and dry them on your napkin. Then, using both hands, you pick up the bowl and doily,” he said with great emphasis, “and place them together at the upper left of your plate. The trick is to remember to move the doily with the bowl, so the dessert plate is cleared and ready. And, one more thing,” he added. “You take the utensils resting horizontally at the top of your plate and place the fork to the left and spoon to the right of your dessert plate.”
I had it down pat. I thanked him for the tutorial.
The next time I was at the White House for dinner, I felt smug as the finger bowls were delivered. I continued talking with my seat mate as I dabbled my fingers and dried them on my napkin. Like a pro, I picked up the bowl and set it aside and moved the silverware to its appropriate place. It wasn’t until the server came by and had to remove my doily before planting the dessert that I discovered my omission.
Back at the Governor’s Mansion, I realized that part of the 300-piece silver set designed for the USS Missouri, included attractive, little finger bowls that were much nicer than the glass ones at the White House. These “mini-punchbowls” were adorable—I usually reserve that term to describe children and puppies, but as you can see in the opening photograph, they are quite . . . what else can I say? Adorable.
I looked for opportunities to use the silver accessory, but never found the right occasion.
Then, one evening Walter Cronkite came to dinner. Perfect! He was a Missourian, who would appreciate eating from the historic silver and, having been around Washington, he would have faced a lot of finger bowls. That evening, when the bowl was placed in front of him, he ignored the finger dipping and merely set the bowl—and doily—aside. Then he turned to me and smiled as if to say, “I know what to do, I just don’t chose to do it.”