Jim Brady was in fine form last night at the first annual Chili-USA chilifest and awards dinner.

"Did you wear your asbestos underwear tonight?" he quipped to Health and Human Service Secretary Margaret Heckler. "This is pretty hot stuff."

"Well, no one told me . . ." said the secretary, smiling her tight smile.

Nearing the fourth anniversary of 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, the wounded White House press secretary Brady was presented with the first annual Will Rogers Humanitarian Award for his courage and for -- of all things -- his chili.

"It was the food that brought us together," Brady's wife Sarah told the 500 gathered at the new downtown J.W. Marriott for the chili party benefiting the James S. Brady Foundation.

"Yeah," chimed in Brady, "I tasted the chili."

The crowd went nuts laughing.

The black-tie and boots dinner, featuring the Grammy Award-winning Judds, was sponsored by a rather interesting lobby group that calls itself Chili-USA. Organized last year by Oklahoman Lou Priebe, its only aim in life is to promote chili as the official food of the United States. The group has even introduced legislation. This is a serious matter.

"Well, we don't want to replace the turkey for Thanksgiving and we don't want to replace the hot dog on the Fourth of July, but we certainly think there ought to be a Museum of Chili Culture at the Smithsonian," explained Priebe, who, when he's not lobbying for chili, works for the National Automobile Dealers Association. "And, of course, the cause is always a good excuse to have chili parties. I use it for social climbing."

The usually wheelchair-ridden Brady (truly a chili gourmet), looking trim and happy, touched a crowd of supporters when he got up and walked. Someone asked him how he was feeling these days.

"Well, you see I'm walking," he said. "You play the hand that was dealt you and I've got to play it out. I have my wheelchair everywhere I go so it guarantees me a seat at all the events. You have to look at the bright side."

Philip Morris U.S.A underwrote the entire dinner, and provided the recipes for very hot chili, and something called spiked steak, a thick piece of sirloin coated with black pepper.

The ballroom was overrun with Oklahomans.

There was Gov. George Nigh, who emceed the event. He claims to be in favor of chili.

"Well, I wouldn't want to alienate the chicken vote -- or the pig vote for that matter," said Nigh. "But I guess I'd support chili for national food."

Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), who initiated the recent Senate filibuster on the farm relief issue, arrived high on a Democratic victory in the Senate just hours before, providing $100 million in additional relief for farmers. "We won, we won," he said, "I think it was the first major Democratic victory since we lost control of the Senate. The most important victory was for the farmers."

And then there was Will Rogers Jr., son of the famous folk hero and humorist, who said, "Isn't there anything to drink around here besides tequila? I drink enough of that back home."

About $50,000 was raised to benefit the James S. Brady Foundation, which was begun soon after the assassination attempt to help victims like Brady. In the end, a rope trickster jumped through hoops, the Judds sang a few tunes, and Sarah Brady was crowned America's First Lady of Chili.