PUMPKIN PREFERENCE is a personal thing. After all, this stalwart squash plays a vital role in what for many is the key autumn ritual of Halloween. But whether your dream pumpkin is trim and petite or large and stately, you must come to terms with one stark fact: There is no Perfect Pumpkin.

According to one Virginia pumpkin picker, this is due to the way pumpkins grow: "Whichever side is against the ground will be flattened, perhaps even dented." So much for illusions.

Like banks that have economic consultants, pumpkin hunters have pumpkin advisers. Herewith, more pointers for the prudent pumpkin picker:

* If your pumpkin's primarily for decoration, then, by all means, go with what's esthetically appealing. But if you're planning to cook with it, look for a small, plump, pumpkin -- these are alleged to be sweeter. But some horticulturalists say this may be psychological; that you can find large sweet ones, too. You can distinguish between different varieties, however. One, a deep-orange variety called "Small Sugar," is the ideal pie pumpkin.

They also say:

* For decorative purposes the Jack-o-lantern, Big Max and Howden Fields varieties are recommended.

* It's better to pick a pumpkin at its ripest, but a semi-green one still will ripen off the vine, but slowly.

* Size does not indicate weight. If you're looking for one with a lot of pulp, weigh it. Some pumpkins are denser than others. (If your pumpkin's just for show, and you're paying by the pound, you may as well get a light one.)

Sure, pumpkins can be had at the local grocery store, but for those with a sense of adventure, picking them is an important part of the ritual. Following is a list of area pumpkin patches for those in search of the perfect prop.

Robin Hill Farm Nursery -- 15800 Croom Rd., Brandywine, Md. (301/579-6844). Open 9-dusk. Free hayrides on weekends. PYO and some already harvested pumpkins -- 15 cents a pound.

Rockhill Orchard -- 28600 Ridge Rd., Mt. Airy, Md. (301/831-7427). This orchard offers hayrides to school and community groups for $2 per person. Families picking their own pumpkins pay 15 cents a pound. For those who aren't inclined to pick, try the pre-harvested pile. Rockhill also has a Halloween witch in the front yard to greet pumpkin pickers. Owner Nancy Biggs says, "She's a liberated witch -- she's wearing pants."

Homestead Farms -- Off Route 107 on Sugarland Rd., Dawsonville, Md. (301/977-3761 or 948-5045). Weekends -- free rides to the PYO pumpkin patch from the farm. 20 cents a pound.

Belvoir Berry Farm -- 1489 General's Highway, Crownsville, Md. (301/923-2107). Weekend hayrides 1-4 p.m. $1.50 includes hayride and pumpkin. PYO and pre-harvested pumpkins open Mondays-Saturdays, 9-5; Sundays, 11-4.

Potomac Vegetable Farms -- 9627 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, Va. (703/759-2119). PYO and pre-harvested pumpkins at 15 cents a pound.

When it's time to cook, use a carving knife and, as with a tomato, cut a circle around the top of the pumpkin. Pull its handle and remove the top. Then remove the stringy pulp and seeds. You may roast the seeds by spreading on a cookie sheet and baking for 5 to 8 minutes. Cut the rind into strips. Cut again into rectangles. The pieces should be about palm-size. Place in a large pot or steamer with about three inches of water and steam over medium heat until the pumpkin is soft enough to be scooped from its rind. Drain excess water and mash it up.

If you just love the taste of pumpkins stop here and bake the pulp with a little ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and butter; it's the perfect side dish for the hardcore enthusiast. Like any squash, it's a tasty, low-calorie vegetable. PUMPKIN BREAD (Makes 3 loaves) 3 1/2 cups flour 1 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup vegetable oil 4 eggs 2/3 cup water 2 teaspoons baking soda 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 cups pumpkin 2 cups sugar 1 cup chopped pecans 5 ounces raisins

Mix all ingredients together with a wooden spoon in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Fill 3 8-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pans half-full and bake 1 hour at 350 degrees until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, loosen edges with knife and continue cooling on wire racks. PUMPKIN PECAN PANCAKES (Makes about 20 small pancakes) 2 cups sifted flour 5 teaspoons baking powder 2 teaspoons salt 3 tablespoons sugar 2 cups milk 6 tablespoons melted butter or oil 2 eggs, beaten 1 cup pumpkin 1/2 cup chopped pecans Vegetable oil for griddle

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Combine milk, oil and eggs and add to flour mixture. Add pumpkin and pecans and stir until smooth. Heat griddle or frying pan slowly until moderately hot. Grease pan with vegetable oil lightly before each batch. Pour 1/4 cup batter for each pancake. Bake until top side is full of bubbles that are beginning to pop. Flip it and brown the other side. PUMPKIN COOKIES (Makes 3 to 4 dozen) 1/2 cup butter 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed 2 eggs 1 cup pumpkin 2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon each cloves and nutmeg 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Cream butter, sugar, eggs and pumpkin together in a medium mixing bowl. Sift flour with other dry ingredients and add to mixture. Stir in nuts. Drop full rounded teaspoonsful onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. PUMPKIN PIE (1 9-inch pie) 1 2-inch chunk of peeled ginger 1 cup pumpkin pulp 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon Dash nutmeg Dash ground cloves 2 eggs 1 tablespoon brandy 2/3 cup evaporated milk 1 tablespoon molasses 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 9-inch pie crust

Grate ginger very fine. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and beat very well. Bake pie crust at 400 degrees for 5 minutes. Add pumpkin mixture and bake 5 more minutes at 400. Lower heat to 350 and bake another 30 minutes.