Before diners could puzzle over which fork to use, someone had to pose the riddle.
Five centuries of efforts by artists, jewelers, carvers and smiths to shape the question out of wood, bone, metal, Lucite and more have been collected by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
The stunning result is "Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005,'' on display through Oct. 29.
The exhibition ranges from traveling fork sets in leather sheaths to ornate silver versions with handles of carved ivory, beadwork or World's Fair images. There are dazzling modern forms by Georg Jensen, and the lowly "spork,'' not so unlovely as accused.
The hundreds of forks on display are not only a matter of aesthetic taste and social status, but most were carefully designed for their purpose. Form followed food, from soup to nuts, and along the way, asparagus and ice cream as well.
Set out in large wooden curio cabinets in the museum's rooms of elegant wainscotting, the glittering silverware could be setting the tables of Andrew Carnegie, who built the grand Georgian mansion on Fifth Avenue a century ago. Or at least be part of a bridal registry.
Such gilt-edge frivolity seems irrelevant today, in a society on a takeaway/throwaway diet.
Yet the shape of these basic tools was meatier stuff for the Cooper-Hewitt curators than mere gawk-worthy gewgaws for the rich. Their history details the range of answers to a primal design challenge and the evolution of manners and our meals from the wattle hut to polite company.
Eating with the fingers has been uncivilized, at least according to this collection, since the 1500s. But it took three more centuries for crafty hands and shifting fashion to set our places with the familiar fork, knife and spoon.
Not to mention the sort of symbolism and deconstruction that modern scholars love.
Is the fork wicked and masculine or a sign of woman's sexuality?
For all the fuss about forks, the other implements beat them to the table and to our hands and mouths.
When food was a bowl of soup, gruel or porridge too chunky to drink, it was the spoon that conveyed food to mouth. The spoon's essential use with babies made it a baptismal gift and ultimately a commemoration of any event, from funerals to a Niagara Falls vacation.
The rare hunk of meat called for a knife, which descended from spear-point, but for most people, the primary use of the knife was for bread.
The fork came from Italy in the 16th century and slowly replaced the bodkin, a rather handsome long needle, as a way to position meat and other foods for cutting.
The first fork had two tines, like the fork in a modern carving set.
Indeed, because silverware was rare and expensive, it was personal and portable. Hosts did not provide flatware for guests, so travelers took knife and fork with them.
The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit includes hunting scabbards, ingenious folding forks and velvet carrying cases, and also the modern equivalents of picnic sets and airline ware (the sleek from Scandinavia lines and the sassy plastic of Song).
The fork came into vogue, surprisingly, for desserts, when sugar became common and led to monster courses of fruits and other goodies in sticky syrup. Forks came to the rescue of lace cuffs.
Forks got more use when dandies took up macaroni and also found their hands equally inadequate for seafood.
It was in the 19th century, Carnegie's time of gilded excess and industrial mass production, that all hell broke loose with endless course-by-course service.
Cooper-Hewitt's prize example; an 81-piece set just for dessert: knives, tongs, spoons and forks for every fruit, jam, cake, pudding and ice cream.
This is unimaginable but fascinating in a culture that eats cereal for supper, drinks most of its calories and nutrition, eats pancakes as finger food and gets fried chicken in bowls of rice, cheese and gravy.
We have returned to the Spoon Age. All those forks should be in a museum.
Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is at 2 E 91st St. (at Fifth Avenue) in New York. For more information, call (212) 849-8400 or go to www.cooperhewitt.org.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $12; $7 seniors and students with identification.