The fire was built, banked and glowing in the old stone hearth. Outside the cabin a chill darkness gathered. The last of the coals on the outside fire were putting glints of brown on the spit-roasted turkey.

In the kitchen Grace Firth was stirring a gravy over the hot iron of a wood stove. In the oven below another turkey dripped and sizzled, and on the sideboard a wild-rice dressing sent off puffs of aromatic steam.

Potomac Foragers were gathered around the big dining table munching jerusalem artichokes and bell peppers as yet another wood fire emitted waves of heat from a castiron warming stove.

Shirley Farmer, clad in faded overalls, broke away from stirring the venison stew for moment and cornered Gigi Connally. "Ready for a little glass of my special grapefruit juice, with vodka?" she whispered.

"With what?" asked a newcomer.

"Vodka," said Connally. "You've probably figured out by now that we're not exactly purists."

Welcome to the annual Thanksgiving feast of Washington's find-your-food-in-the-woods crowd, a band of two dozen, give or take a few, who gather each month to test new recipes, get grubby and gab about Indians and Pilgrims and the perils of poisonous white mushrooms.

They jumped the gun on Thanksgiving this year, meeting the weekend before the holiday at Ed Smith's 100-acre paradise in Madison County, Virginia, for three days, two days or just a day, depending on what each forager could spare and how long he could stand life in a sleeping bag.

They're a strange mix of little old ladies in work shoes, sturdy young women in hiking boots and adoptive woodsmen who survive in the city to earn their weekends in the forest.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what any of them do for a living," said Jay Volker, who was turning the turkey spit most of the afternoon. "It just never comes up."

Ed Smith, the host for the Thanksgiving gathering, used to do some citified thing but now he's happily retired. He's a tall, straight-standing, clear-eyed guy who occupies his time planting pines, talking alfalfa, making soap and cider, building birdhouses and avoiding dangerous newfangled contraptions like indoor plumbing and fossil-fuel heat.

His home is a frame house on the hill, at least for as long as it takes to reconstruct the ageless log cabin that sits by the creek. He gets his water from the well, takes his constitutional to one of a pair of wooden outhouses, never has to answer a telephone and eats what the good Lord provides.

The foragers found plenty to do around Smith's spread. There were so many apples that a good part of Saturday was spent grinding them to tiny chunks, then pressing out fresh cider on a superannuated oak-and-iron press. When the apples were gone there were gritty seed pears to chop and mash, and they made a thin but tasty cider, too.

There was a 10-acre pond to fish, built and stocked by Smith. Ben McGimsey found small bass and bluegills there. He cleaned what he caught and left it for the Smiths.

The soap-making began with leftovers from wood fires. The ashes were gathered into plastic sacks, then mixed with water and left to drip dry. The drippings: lye for soap.

All day long foragers kept arriving, each bringing a dish. "We don't do much organizing," said Connally. "Everybody brings something and it always works out."

Then, as dusk gathered, things started to come together, in more ways than one.

Take 26 foragers and a few assorted tots and sprinkle them around a small farm kitchen and you've got chaos. Somehow out of this confusion emerged the following Thanksgiving dinner: Venison jerky and beef jerky Raw carrots, peppers and jerusalem artichokes with sour-cream dip Pineapple chunks Acorn bread Persimmon/nut bread Indian fry bread with honey Blackberry jam Apples with pokeberry juice, lemon and lemon rind Spiced foraged crab apples Cole slaw Venison with wheat sprouts, mushrooms and onions Baked whole pumpkins with honey, cider and butter Baked yams Cranberry sauce flavored with spicebank Spit-roasted and baked turkeys Wild-rice dressing with chestnuts Salad with sheep sorrel, jerusalem artichokes, yellow and cherry tomatoes and chickweed Stewed seed pears Mint/joe pyeweed tea Pumpkin pie, black-walnut pie and pokeberry pie Elderberry wine Persimmon beer And oh, yes, grapefruit juice and vodka:

How much was foraged? Well, nobody shot the turkeys with a blunderbuss; they came from Magruders. And the wild rice and peppers and pineapples were vintage Safeway.

But the Foragers are working on that. They've come a long way since their first bash, when they tried to cook the yams Indian style, coated in mud.

"We had the whole crew out here scraping mud off them, and when we got them clean they still weren't cooked," said Linda Volkert. "We decided at that point that if the Indians had aluminum foil, they would have used it."