"I feel like a giant cheerleader this evening," Nancy Thurmond, wife of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-N.C.), said last night. "I feel like the Gerber ad--babies are my business."

Thurmond was general chairman for a $150-a-plate benefit called a "Gourmet Gala" for the March of Dimes. In the ballroom of the Sheraton Washington Hotel, 15 small kitchens were set up. Various cooks, including presidential Press Secretary James Brady and his wife, Sarah; WTTG anchorman Jackson Bain; Mayor Marion Barry; Leonard Lauder of Estee Lauder Inc.; Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh; Ed Meese III, counselor to the president; and Maria Fisher, president of the Beethoven Society, all competed to win awards for best fare. Local interior designers came up with kitchens to suit the cooks.

Brady's kitchen was decorated in black, white and red. A steaming pot of chili stood on the stove. Brady greeted guests with a cheery smile and a brief "hello," before being taken in his wheelchair to a table for dinner.

Across the vast room, Redskins Mark Murphy and Larry Brown put on aprons over their tuxedos to mix up a Mexican cheese dip, but it seemed to be Murphy's wife, Laurie, due to have a baby in two weeks, who supervised the operation.

"Yeah, I cook a lot," Mark Murphy said, while chopping cheese into big chunks.

"Oh, right," Laurie Murphy said. "If I don't cook, we go out."

A couple of kitchens down on the right, Ed Meese sat behind a table with his wife, Ursula, waiting for a chocolate cheese cake to finish baking. He said the recipe choice was really his wife's. He had come from the White House and explained what happened there earlier when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Burford resigned.

""Well, this was totally her own idea," Meese said, "I got a message on my desk at 4 p.m. saying she wanted to see the president, so we arranged a meeting. At 5, 5:25. It was totally her idea."

At the same time on Capitol Hill, Congress was in session, which held up a few of the chefs for the preliminary fixings.

Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.). vigorously stirred a pot on the stove. "Unfortunately, I was stuck up there on that darn Social Security bill and they screwed this up. Too much water," Conte said. "They should've at least used bourbon."

After the stoves were turned off and the votes counted, a panel of judges--headed by New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne and Kitty Carlisle Hart, of TV movie and game show fame--took the stage to announce the big winners.

Jim Brady's chili won for best entree. Clearly tired, Brady was wheeled to the stage.

In a scene that would become increasingly familiar as the evening wore on, Brady said simply, "Thank you very much." He was given a standing ovation.

It would be the first of three.