IT WAS A gathering of people with well-honed palates, many of whom had traveled around the world acquainting themselves with different cultures and people, tasting exotic foods and being paid for offering nutritional improvements.

Among them was Helen Bullock, a well-known historian and author of several cookbooks.

Today, in their retirement, the group spends much of its time trading traveling stories and swapping recipes picked up along the way. So, it only stands to reason that these semi-professional and professional eaters should hold an apple pie bake-off and indulge on a hot Friday afternoon in the city.

In the elegant dining room of Thomas House, a retirement house on Massachusetts Avenue, the 12 men and women judges, the entrants and other interested residents -- obviously delighted with their assigned task for the day -- sat tasting the pies many of them had been baking for their friends and families for over 50 years.

There were nine pies entered, only two of which were apple pies. The rest were variations of peach, coconut custard, chess, cream cheese, butter crunch lemon, vinegar and chocolate pies. When the contest was over, the stuffed participants agreed it had been a difficult choice. The winning recipes were butter crunch lemon, coconut custard and peach.

The winners received a free lunch at Twigs, a restaurant in the Capital Hilton on 16th Street.

Bullock, 76, author of the "Williamsburg Cookbook" and consultant on several others (including "The American Heritage Cookbook"), sipped punch -- a combination of pistachio ice cream and ginger ale -- and talked about the art of pie baking and making a perfect pie crust.

"I have found that people who bake a good pie usually aren't so good on cakes." It depends on the crust and knowing how to "feel" it, she said.

She offered several tips:

When preparing the flour and shortening mixture, put aside a small portion and use it to roll out the dough, instead of excess flour.

When making the dough, handle it lightly, allow it to rest for 5 minutes and then chill it for 20-30 minutes in the refrigerator.

After chilling, shape the dough into a flattened disk and roll it from the center out in each direction.

Lay the pastry gently into the pie pan being careful not to stretch it out of shape. design of colonial kitchens and the cooking habits of early Americans. This, she said, led to her interest in cooking.

Many of the pre-packaged ingredients used in modern-day cooking are unhealthy because of the additives used for storage purposes, she said. "Ingredients do make a difference. The flour today, for example, is so bad that even a self-respecting weasel couldn't live in it." Cooks should learn to use all natural, fresh ingredients and not be taken in by anything "fancifully named. They should also learn to cut down on the amount of sugar and salt they use," she said.

Speaking of the unusually spicy Vinegar Pie entry, Bullock said 18th-century cooks had to use a lot of spice because ingredients such as butter tended to go rancid quickly. Vinegar Pie, she said, is rich and nutritious. "The raisins and nuts are especially good for older people who have a sweet tooth to satisfy."

Bullock said of her own Chess Pie entry, another 18th-century recipe "while not a handsome pie, has to coast its way on taste alone." PLAIN PASTRY (Makes One 2-crust, 9-inch pie or two pastry shells) 2 cups flour 2/3 cup shortening 3/4 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons ice water 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional) 1 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add half of the shortening to the flour mixture. Chop fine, using two knives. Add remaining shortening and chop, leaving quite large lumps, which when rolled out make flakes. Add about 4 tablespoons ice water to hold mixture together. Turn out on a lightly floured board. Roll thin.

For variation add to dry ingredients cinnamon and nutmeg. This is delicious for apple tarts. Adapted from the "Toll House Cook Book," by Ruth Wakefield. MURIEL HARKESS' BUTTER CRUNCH LEMON PIE 3/4 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup butter 1 cup flour 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts 1 cup granulated sugar 1 package unflavored gelatin 2/3 cup water 1/3 cup lemon juice 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind 4 eggs separated, yolks slightly beaten 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar 1 pint heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix together brown sugar, butter, flour, and pecans by hand. Spread on an oblong pan, bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove from oven and stir immediately. Separate 3/4 cup of hot mixture for topping. Press remainder against sides and bottom of 8-inch pie pan and set aside to cool.

Blend 1/2 cup of granulated sugar with gelatin, water, lemon juice, lemon rind, egg yolks and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. When mixture comes to a boil, remove from heat and set pan in a pan of cold water. Cool until mixture mounds slightly when dropped from a spoon. Beat in egg whites, cream of tartar and remaining 1/2 cup of granulated sugar. Pour into crust, sprinkle top with reserved crumbs and chill. Top with whipped cream. EUSTAQUIO PACLEB'S BLENDER COCONUT CUSTARD PIE 2 cups of milk 4 eggs 1/2 cup of biscuit mix 1/2 cup of sugar 1/4 pound of butter or margarine 1 cup of coconut 1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put all ingredients in a blender and mix at medium speed for two minutes. Pour into greased 10-inch pie plate and bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes. This recipe makes its own crust. HELEN PRYOR'S PEACH PIE (Recipe requires double crust recipe above) 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup sugar 1 tablespoon shortening 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 3 cups sliced peaches

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare pastry and line 9-inch pie pan with crust. Mix flour, sugar, shortening and nutmeg together and pour 1/4 of mixture into pie crust. Top with peaches. Add remainder of flour mixture and add top crust.Pat top crust with milk to facilitate browning. Bake at 425 degrees until browned, then turn oven down to 350 and continue to bake for 20 minutes or until done. HELEN BULLOCK'S CHESS PIE 3 eggs 3/4 cup sugar Pinch of salt 2 tablespoons melted butter Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare pastry and line 9-inch pie pan with crust. Beat the eggs and add sugar and salt until smooth. Stir in butter, lemon rind and lemon juice. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until top is pale gold in color. Remove and cool.

The filling will sink slightly when the pie is completely cool. Adapted from "The American Heritage Cookbook." HELEN MORRIS' VINEGAR PIE 1/4 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1/2 teaspoon cloves Dash of salt 4 egg yolks 2 egg whites 1 cup sugar 1 cup sour cream 3 tablespoons melted butter 3 tablespoons cider vinegar 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans 1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Prepare pastry and line a 9-inch pie pan. Sift together flour, spices and salt. Set aside. Beat egg yolks thoroughly. Beat egg whites until they stand in peaks. Gently fold sugar into egg whites and stir in yolks. Add flour mixture alternately with the sour cream. Combine butter, vinegar, nuts and raisins and stir into the filling. Pour into pie shell and bake for 10 minutes. Turn heat down to 350 degrees and continue baking for 15 minutes or until filling is set. Cool. May be served with whipped cream. Adapted from "The American Heritage Cookbook."