Brillat Savarin on Ablutions

The next instalment in our regular dose of Brillat Savarin, in which he rails against fingerbowls (possibly not for the faint of stomach):


I wrote earlier that the Roman vomitory offended the delicacy of our own conventions but I am afraid this was a piece of rashness on my part, and that I must now retract. Let me explain:

About forty years ago, or thereabouts, there were a few people in high society, nearly all of them ladies, who used to rinse their mouths out at the end of a meal.

To this end, as soon as they left the table, they turned their backs on the company; a servant handed them a cup of water, they took a mouthful, and promptly spat it out into the saucer; the servant carried off both cup and saucer, and the operation, or the way in which it was carried out, went almost unnoticed.

We have changed all that.

In houses where a point is made of following the latest fashions, servants, at the end of dessert, distribute bowls of cold water among the guests, in each of which stands a goblet of hot water. Whereupon, in full view of one another, the guests plunge their fingers in the cold water, as if to wash them, fill their mouths with the hot, gargle noisily, and spit it out into the goblet or the bowl.

I am not the only person to have spoken out against this useless, indecent, and disgusting innovation.

Useless, because in the case of people who know how to eat, the mouth is clean at the end of the meal, having been cleansed either by the fruit or by the last glasses of wine drunk at dessert. As for the hands, they should not be used in such a way as to soil them; and besides, has not everyone a napkin to wipe them on?

Indecent, because it is a generally recognized principle that any sort of ablution should take place in private.

And above all disgusting, for the prettiest and freshest mouth loses all its charms when it usurps the functions of the evacuatory organs; what then if the mouth is neither fresh nor pretty? And what shall be said of those monstrous chasms that open up to reveal pits that would seem bottomless, if it were not for the sight of the shapeless, time-corroded stumps? Proh pudor!

Such is the pass to which we have been brought by our pretentious affectation of cleanliness, foreign alike to our tastes and our manners.

Once certain limit have been passed, there is no saying where we shall stop, and heaven knows what purification may next be imposed on us.

Ever since the official appearance of these new-fangled bowls I have been grieving night and day. A second Jeremiah, I deplore the vagaries of fashion; and all too well informed by my travels, I now never enter a dining room without trembling at the thought that my eyes might fall upon the odious chamber-pot*

*It is common knowledge that there are, or were a few years ago, dining-rooms in England where it was possible for a man to answer the call of Nature without leaving the room:  a curious facility, but one which had fewer disadvantages in a land where the ladies withdraw as soon as the men begin to drink wine.


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