MENTION COUNTRY ham to a group of people and partisan activity begins at once. Those who hate it will huddle together angrily, distaste written on their faces. "It's like eating the saltiest cinderblock in the world." they'll complain. Country ham lovers will stand together, united in their belief that it is a gift from heaven.

But there will be disunity even among country ham lovers as to its definition and how to cook it. Stalwartly pro-country ham, we're compelled to add our bit about that precious, controversial commodity.

Country ham is a ham that is drycured. Unlike "city" ham (regular ham), which is cured by injecting solutions into the meat, no liquid is used to cure a country ham. It is rubbed with sugar, salt, saltpeter and sometimes a few other seasonings such as red or black pepper, and then it is laid in salt to cure. To qualify as a country ham, most meat processors agree that the ham must remain in the cure at least 25 days, and then must hang at least 45 days for air-curing.Since no water is used in the cure, the predictable result is a salty, dry ham. But once the character and tang of a properly cooked country ham is experienced, a regular ham is tame stuff.

Good country ham has been popular with Americans since the first colonists at Jamestown observed the Indians curing and smoking meat, and adapted similar methods for curing pork. The fame of country ham spread, and history tells us of its legions of devotees, among them Queen Victoria, who regularly ordered shipments of hams from Smithfield, Va. Another lady in later times who could not be without her country ham was Sarah Bernhardt. Even when that legendary actress was performing in Paris, the grand Sarah had her country ham.

Country ham played a strong supporting role in America's history. Because of its dry cure, it needed no special handling and could travel well. Therefore it went along in ship's stores for long voyages, and traveled across the plains in Conestoga wagons. A good country ham could be bartered, and was so prized by early familites it was often part of a bride's dowry. There are also stories about country ham sustaining some southern families during the Civil War: Northern invaders often passed over those rock-hard hams in Southern smokehouses, thinking them inedible.

Today, it is every ham-lover's dream to wander into a backroad country store and find a truly elderly country ham hanging there. Ten and 12-year-old country hams can be found, and some even older. An old country ham will seem as hard as marble, and that matters not at all. It's color will be almost purple.A young country ham will have some "give" when pressed under the hand, and its color is a light, rich red.

Old cookbooks and grandmothers are apt to yield complicated methods for cooking country ham. One old method involves soaking the ham for 24 hours in at least a dozen changes of water. Then the ham is put to simmer in a lard can for about one minute per pound. After that, the whole works -- lard can, ham and hot liquid are wrapped in a thick quilt. Thus bundled, it is put to stand for 24 hours. Then the ham is lifted from it quilt "nest" and sliced thinly.

Some ham-cooking procedures remain unchanged, like the need to soak a country ham in several changes of water. Here is one way to cook a country ham:

First of all, decide if the ham is young or old. A young ham will need only 12 hours of soaking, a well-cured one will require as much as 48. Put the ham in a container, cover with water and let it soak. During the soaking period, change the water several times. After soaking, rinse and scrub it well to remove any traces of mold. Then place the ham, skin side up, in a deep roasting pan. Pour water, champagne or cider over the ham until the ham is about half-covered with liquid. Cover the pan and set it in a preheated 300-degree oven.

Never let the ham boil. Check to see that the ham is just simmering and adjust oven temperature if necessary. Cooking time will depend on the age and weight of the ham, but the usual rule is to allow it to simmer 20 to 25 minutes per pound. You can be sure the ham is done when a meat thermometer reads 160 degrees. Another sign the ham is done is when the hip, or "aitch" bone comes loose. Once the ham is done, remove it from the hot liquid at once. Let the ham cool just long enough to handle it, then skin it and it is ready to slice. It is easier to slice when cold, but hot or cold, slices should be as thin as possible. (Please spare an honest country ham the indignity of pineapple and cherries and other sugar concoctions.)

True country ham lovers also enjoy it fried. This is an old-fashioned and simple way to serve it. Stand the ham on its edge, and with a stout, sharp knife cut medium-thin slices down toward the bone. Remove the rind and soak the ham slices in water overnight. Then rinse slices and place in a dry, black iron skillet. Put the skillet over medium to low heat and fry slices gently until they are a rich, tannish mahogany color. It will be necessary to turn the slices frequently. Drain the slices of ham on absorbent paper while stirring in just enough water to make a thin gravy. Allow to simmer a few minutes to develop flavor. This is red-eye gravy.

Some cooks like to add a bit of strong coffee when deglazing the pan, but like all aspects of country ham cookery, this is open to heated debate. Fried country ham slices are traditionally served with biscuits, grits, eggs and red-eye gravy.

Country ham is a delicacy morning noon or night. It adds unmistakable character to breakfast. Top a thin slice of country ham with a mound of crabmeat that has been sauteed with butter and finely chopped parsley and there is a lunch blessed with a delightful constrast of flavors. Tuck small pieces of country into small hot biscuits, and they are excellent cocktail tidbits.

Country ham lovers know that its splendid flavor goes well with many things. But a typical country ham dinner with a Southern slant might include a puffy, lightly browned grits casserole or a casserole of whipped sweet potatoes. Any of the fall squashes such as acorn or butternut are wonderful with country ham. Halved or quartered the backed in their skins, the squash have eye appeal and compliment country ham very well. Another traditional favorite with country ham is corn pudding. One of these choices plus whole green beans cooked just till tender and topped with lemon juice rounds out a country ham dinner. Just add pickled peaches or crab apples, a light leafy salad and hot biscuits and it's a true country ham dinner. A wine worthy of the ham is always in order, but after a country ham dinner, dessert is anticlimactic.