THE BARBECUE season got off to a fast finish September 12 as 24 celebrity chefs spent the morning grilling ribs and chicken for the First Annual Celebrity Barbecue to benefit the National Center on Black Aged Housing Development Corporation. Grills clustered in the parking lot of NCBA Estates at 14th and Girard streets, ready for such Saturday chefs as mayoral assistant Joseph Yeldell, city council member Jerry Moore, Sterling Tucker, three members of the school board, a banker, a television personality, a presidential assistant and several government officials.

The staff cleaned 400 pounds of collard greens for the feast to accompany the judging (which fleshed out the ribs and chicken with cornbread, red beans and rice, coleslaw, potato salad and watermelon). And along with the music of a steel band, a guitarist and a gospel choir, with toddlers balancing plates precariously and teen-agers transporting theirs by skateboard, there was plenty of barbecue's most natural accompaniment: politicking.

Mayor Marion Barry ducked in for a few introductory remarks but disappeared before the judging. Yeldell and Moore didn't stick around to hear of their prizes. But for the entire sunny afternoon Tucker towered over the crowd, by virtue of his tall white chef's hat, and school board member Frank Shaffer-Corona made no secret of his campaigning, though he was easily diverted to talk of cooking.

"I cook," Shaffer-Corona was adamant, as seemed to be his habit. "I'm single -- a single-parent family." He introduced his three-year-old daughter, Tamika, who was preoccupied with unwrapping her napkin and not eager to be interviewed. She was rumored to adore her father's fried chicken, but refused to confirm or deny. Shaffer-Corona called his contest entry -- barbecued chicken -- a combination of many different cultures, including "spices, a little wine, a little peanut butter." It did not win.

Sterling Tucker, who seemed wedded to his chef's toque and apron, wouldn't dream of calling himself a cook. "I used to think I could cook until one weekend my wife was sick and I took care of the family," he confessed, adding that he hadn't cooked at all in the last couple years. For this contest, therefore, Tucker "borrowed recipes, sneaked a peek at cookbooks and consulted a few friends." His main concern, he said, was making sure that he didn't have to eat any of his own barbecue. "One thing I know is that Sterling Tucker is not going to win." Any politician would be proud of such a successful prediction.

Drapher A. Pagan, vice president of the Industrial Bank of Washington, proved that experience counts. His ribs won first place, but then, as Pagan admitted, he has been cooking ribs two or three times a month, summer and winter, for about 14 years. He cooks as much as a 100 pounds at a time, "just for fun, for friends," he bragged. The prize, it must be noted, was a year's worth of bragging rights.

He also claimed the right to keep his rib recipe a secret -- citing the Privacy Act, but taking no notice of the Freedom of Information Act. The most he would tell was that his marinade includes wine but never any sugar, and that he adds some liquid smoke even when he cooks his ribs over charcoal. "Don't put the sauce on too soon," he cautioned; rather, add it when the ribs are just about done, and continuously turn them. The one barbecuing secret he would reveal: "Patience."

Pagan was asked the secret of keeping his white pants so pristine during the barbecuing, and volunteered, "That's what a good chef is: put all the ingredients on the ribs, not on the clothes."

Fifth runner-up Steven Rhodes, special assistant to the president, had gotten to the White House at 6 a.m. to take care of the day's business in time to tend his grill. An old Creole formula updated with maple syrup, his sauce was a matter of mixing and tasting rather than a measurable recipe. But Rhodes, who grew up in New Orleans, had invented what he called ribs "with a Creole accent from New Orleans, a western accent from living in Los Angeles and a little preppie flair," which has been added since his recent move to Washington. His serious cooking began one college semester when he had only $50 to live on, and "became an indentured servant" to his roommates, cooking all their meals. "My phone bill went up because I had to call my mom a lot," he explained. He has since been a caterer, bartender and bricklayer, and as a presidential assistant still cooks barbecue every weekend all year, "depending how hard it is raining."

Two secrets of barbecue cooking became apparent in questioning the winners. One is to never give out your recipe; both Pagan and Rhodes were keeping their lips sealed, and the other winners -- Moore, Yeldell and director of the D.C. Department of Consumer Protection, Herbert Simmons -- had left before anybody could ask. Pagan and Rhodes also espouse identical methods: marinate the ribs, then parboil them, and finally grill them.

The real winners were the judges, who included Ofield Dukes, Vi Curtis Hinton and several whose name tags became too greasy to read. While judges at most tastings end up vowing never to eat that particular kind of food again, after 14 different barbecues these judges were ready for more. They went back to the tables for their favorites, even wrapped up leftovers to take home for dinner. As for the barbecues themselves, even the losers were winners.

DICK ARTIS' BARBECUE SAUCE (Makes 2 cups) 1 large onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 1/4 cup oil 1 cup tomato pure'e 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1/3 cup chicken stock 8 teaspoons worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon dry mustard 8 teaspoons vinegar 1 tablespoon chili salsa 1 tablespoon Pickapeppa sauce Freshly ground pepper 1/3 cup dry red wine

Saute' onions and garlic in oil. Scrape into blender and blend at high speed for a minute. Return to pan and add all the other ingredients except the wine. Simmer for 20 minutes; add wine and heat briefly.

KATHY BLUNT'S BARBECUE SAUCE (Makes 1 1/2 cups, enough for 5 pounds of ribs) 1/4 cup cider vinegar 1/4 cup water 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1/4 cup ketchup 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 onion, chopped 2 tablespoons prepared mustard 1 tablespoon butter 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce 2 tablespoons liquid smoke

Combine vinegar, water, lemon juice, ketchup, brown sugar, onion, mustard and butter. Bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes. Add worcestershire sauce and liquid smoke.

To prepare ribs, steam them for 5 minutes, then marinate for 1 hour in a quarter of the sauce. Grill until tender and cooked through, turning often and brushing with the rest of the sauce.