FACE IT. Canned ham is a compromise.

It is not the character of a fine cured ham that you cook yourself. It is not as good a value as the sale-priced hams in the supermarket meat counter.

But, oh, does it make unexpected entertaining easy! Two dozen unanticipated guests could arrive at dinnertime, and you would be ready for the challenge; the bigger the crowd, the thinner you slice it, and that is all you have to know. You don't need to light the oven or crack open a cookbook. You can buy it whenever you don't have too much to carry home from the market or when it is on sale, and store it until the next holiday or impromptu Sunday supper gathering. Besides being fully cooked and ready to eat cold or hot, it is boneless and easy to carve. You can go so far as to glaze it and bake it or to slice and pan fry it, but it is the most undemanding of main courses. Some canned hams -- usually small ones -- don't even need refrigeration, though you should always keep them refrigerated unless the label tells you that's not necessary.

The convenience of having instant dinner available for a crowd costs, of course.While cooked hams that were not canned ranged from $1.49 to $2.79 a pound (more for Smithfield) at a supermarket one day, canned hams at the same store were $2.66 to $4.08 a pound. One brand -- Hormel -- was $2.79 a pound in the meat counter, $2.90 a pound in the can (for a three-pound ham).

A panel at The Washington Post tasted 16 canned hams ranging from the cheapest house brands to the most expensive imports, and found a wide variation in quality, only partly indicated by price. The most expensive of hams -- Rath Extra Lean (three pounds for $12.25, $4.08 a pound) -- was the favorite. It looked like a real ham and had a lively flavor. The least-liked ham -- nobody liked it -- was Plumrose Danish ham, one of the most expensive.

For a balance between price and quality, Oscar Mayer was a standout. It placed third among the 16 hams; four of the tasters judged it best, and it was complimented for its lean and meaty texture, though faulted for being somewhat too salty and watery. At $9.89 for three pounds ($3.30 a pound), it was priced in the middle range. Armour Golden Star ham placed second in the tasting, though some tasters found it bland; it cost $10.29 for three pounds ($3.43 a pound).

Several hams were highly controversial, strongly appreciated by some tasters but definitely disliked by others. Celebrity, a ham imported from Hungary, was the favorite of three tasters and one of the worst to six others. hIt had a grainy texture reminiscent of country ham and a pronounced cured meat flavor, but was dry and too stringy for some tastes. It definitely had character, but not a universally-liked character. A one-pound Celebrity ham cost $3.19. Also judged high by some tasters and low by others were: Hormel (at $8.69 for three pounds, $2.90 a pounnd) -- spongy texture was a flaw. Dubuqye (at $9.69 for 3 pounds, $3.23 a pound) -- pleasant smoky flavor but dry, crumbly and undersalted. Rath Honey Glazed (at $9.89 for three pounds, $3.30 a pound) -- faulted for being too fatty and falling apart, and for its sweet glaze that pleased some tasters but offended others.

Swift Premium Hostess Ham (at $13.49 for four pounds, $3.37 a pound) had its fans, as did Safeway (at $3.99 for 1 1/2 pounds, $2.66 a pound), which had a mildly smoky flavor and meaty texture. The Safeway ham was a good buy since it was least expensive.

Atlanta ham from Poland (at $11.97 for three pounds, $3.99 a pound) was faulted for its odd taste and color, more reminiscent of corned beef than ham.

Wilson's Masterpiece ham (at $10.49 for three pounds, $3.50 a pound) looked handsome, but was too soft and bland. Garland's Mohawk ham (at $12.59 for five pounds, $2.52 a pound) was gristly. Hafnia Danish ham (at $6.38 for two pounds, $3.19 a pound) was so dry that it crumbled. A&P ham (at $7.99 for three pounds, $2.66 a pound) was tough and gristly, one of those favored least. But the clear losers were Plumrose Danish ham (one pound for $3.69) and Rialty from Holland (one pound for $3.39), which tasted more like Army rations than any of the other hams. In fact, the tasting panel was surprised to find that those two imported hams had most accurately reproduced that old American specialty, Spam.