What’s up with that finger bowl thing?

Recently, the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians, based on the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan dropped.  It looks gorgeous and fun, and I’m stoked, stoked, stoked, to see more work from Asian and Asian-American actors, writers, and creators.

I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but it appears to tell the story of an Asian-American woman, Rachel Chu  (portrayed by Constance Wu), who goes to meet her boyfriend’s family only to learn that they’re rich beyond belief.  It’s like Meet the Parents on steroids.  She finds her upbringing and personality to be at odds with this rich family and struggles to fit in with them.  This is highlighted in the trailer at the 0:57 mark when she accidentally drinks from the finger bowl.

But wait, what is a finger bowl?  Why does using one symbolize wealth?  Why do I feel like I’ve seen this before.

Apparently, drinking from the finger bowl is a common enough trope that it has its own page on TVtropes, and is a universal sign that the drinker is out of their element.

The exact same joke has shown up multiple times in pop culture.  The first time I ever saw it was in Shrek 2:

It’s also appeared in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air:

Even an episode of Hannah Montana:

Perusing the TVtropes page for the trope shows a few more instances, and I’m almost sure I’ve seen it occur in a book at some point, which I can’t embed.

For anyone who’s curious, and has never been in a hoity-toity enough situation to face this problem, a finger bowl, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from context, is a bowl served at the end of a meal, or sometimes between dishes that you dip your fingers in.  I guess for washing.  And sometimes there’s a lemon in it, which seems to defeat the purpose.  According to wikipedia, they went out of style in America during WWI, which is why most of us Yankees would likely pull a Shrek or Will or a Rachel Chu.

The spread of drinking from the finger bowl as a gag seems to come from an old urban legend, where a highly regarded guest, unfamiliar with the custom accidentally drank from the finger bowl at a meal with Queen Victoria.  The story goes that the queen politely followed suit and drank from the finger bowl herself in order to avoid embarrassing the guest.  Versions of this story have been told with various upper class women filling the role of the polite host.  The story’s never been confirmed by any means, but it’s clearly left a mark on etiquette in pop culture.

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