HOUSTON, JULY 9 -- President Bush played host tonight at the first of two economic summit dinners, this one a working get-together to talk about whether the world's seven richest nations should give aid to the Soviet Union.

If they reached any decision, nobody -- least of all George Bush -- was saying so later. He was the affable welcomer at the stately mansion called Bayou Bend, where he graciously ushered his guests past the waiting news media.

Of the leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was the most outgoing, pausing longer than his colleagues to give photographers plenty of time to capture him and Bush in an animated conversation. At the opposite end of the spectrum was France's President Francois Mitterrand, whom Bush had to persuade to turn around for a brief photo opportunity.

From then on it was behind closed doors. After the dinner Bush was to make a brief call on the Houston Host Committee to show his thanks for its monetary largesse in staging this economic summit gathering, the first in any major American city. Scheduled to join him was First Lady Barbara Bush, coming from the dinner she presided over for the spouses of the seven other summit leaders.

At that affair, Hugh Liedtke was invited because Denis Thatcher was. "But if Denis isn't coming, you're not going to make the cut," Betty Liedtke warned her husband.

Margaret Thatcher's husband did come tonight to Betty Liedtke's dinner for economic summit spouses. And so did Hugh Liedtke and his brother, Bill, who along with George Bush formed Zapata Petroleum in 1953. Under what Bush has described as Hugh Liedtke's "imaginative management," Zapata eventually merged into Pennzoil.

The Bushes, Hugh and Betty Liedtke, Bill and Bessie Liedtke, Baine and Mildred Kerr and Marion Chambers, whose husband, C. Fred, died last winter, were all part of that Midland-Houston crowd that arrived in Texas in the early '50s and became one another's "families."

They still are, so when Barbara Bush called Betty Liedtke during the spring and didn't get right to the point, Liedtke characteristically asked, "What are you getting ready to ask me to do?"

When Mrs. Bush said she wanted her to give a dinner for summit spouses, Liedtke remembers "picking myself up off the floor and telling her I'd be delighted."

It meant renting the silver and china -- "I don't have 40 of anything," Betty Liedtke said -- but the guest list was Barbara Bush's call. In case some Houstonians felt left out, the hostess had an answer ready.

"I really wanted you but you aren't on Mrs. Bush's list," she planned to say, except that nobody asked.

Those who were asked include Annette Strake and Linda Lay, whose husbands are co-chairmen of the Houston summit host committee; Marlene Malek, wife of summit czar Fred Malek; the Bushes' daughter-in-law Laura Bush; and Frances Marzio, whose husband, Peter, is director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, scene of Tuesday night's official summit dinner.

On Tuesday, France's Danielle Mitterrand, Canada's Mila Mulroney, Italy's Livia Andreotti and Japan's Sachiyo Kaifu, plus foreign and finance ministry spouses, fly to San Antonio for an exclusive lunch.

Barbara Bush's hostess there, Jocelyn Straus, was instructed to have only three tables of eight, which leaves room for six non-summit guests, two of whom will be Straus's daughters.

"Barbara wanted it very informal -- no protocol, for instance -- and very intimate," says Straus.

Both menus are heavy on Southwestern fare. Betty Liedtke offered gazpacho Rio Grande; shrimp creole; poached snapper with dill glaze; cucumber, mint and green chili salsa; and jalapeno corn bread. Joci Straus is serving sliced rare beef tenderloin, red pepper soup served in acorn squash shells, three-pepper salad with black beans, and long-stemmed caramelized strawberries. Straus deleted at least one item after attending the Liedtkes' recent tasting dinner. And in case San Antonio isn't picturesque enough, she has arranged for two "tortilla ladies" to be patting out flour tortillas on her terrace when her summit guests arrive.

Not much about this summit or the entertaining has escaped notice or conjecture here, both public and private.

One of the best sideshows has been the War of the Chefs, a skirmish that had Houstonians circling the wagons because summit planners were importing a chef from Dallas -- of all places -- to take charge of preparations for the president's two big dinners.

Houstonians finally buried the hatchet when executive chefs from two Houston establishments, Cafe Annie's Robert Del Grande and the Four Seasons Hotel's Robert McGrath, got costar billing with Dean Fearing, executive chef at Dallas's Mansion on Turtle Creek.

White House Social Secretary Laurie Firestone, reportedly taking some flak from State Department bill payers, flew here in May for a tasting dinner the culinary trio served at Bayou Bend.

The menu was a showcase of Southwestern inventiveness -- beef tenderloin with black bean chili sauce, for instance. The word came back for something indigenous but a little less adventurous, which probably explains the grilled Gulf red snapper on tonight's menu for the eight-leader working dinner.

Museum of Fine Arts Director Marzio, who played Margaret Thatcher to Firestone's Bush at the May tasting, says that despite the Bayou Bend mansion's awesome collection of early American art and furnishings -- one of the nation's foremost -- he sensed a "level of intimacy" that summit planners must have wanted for tonight's dinner.

Tuesday night's dinner will be less intimate, with about 100 more guests, including the spouses. According to Marzio, who came to Houston in 1982 from Washington, where he was at the Smithsonian Institution and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Bush, wanting to highlight Houston's early cultural roots, took a personal interest in the selection of both dinner sites. Built in 1927, Bayou Bend was at one time the home of the unfortunately named Ima Hogg, the late daughter of the first native-born governor of Texas, James Hogg. It has been a museum since the mid-'60s. Bush asked that guests arrive at the Museum of Fine Arts through the original 1924 colonnaded south entrance rather than the main one designed by Mies van der Rohe for the Brown Pavilion Galleries, which opened in 1974.

A Marzio touch Tuesday night will be the 18th-century John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton, America's first secretary of the treasury, shipped here five days ago from Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady's office in Washington.

"Having Hamilton hang behind the president while he delivers his toast at this economic summit, well, that's an idea I really love," Marzio says.