LIKE MANY another gentle cooking art, the art of smoking food has gone from a means for us to outsmart starvation to a means for us to outsmart each other. What started out in pre-refrigeration days as a method of drying and therefore preserving meat and fish has evolved into a game of entrepreneurial one-upsmanship, with us urban Easterners reduced to buying small bags of weed-tree chips imported at great expense from the other side of the continent.

Once the mesquite smoke clears, though, we're left with great-tasting food. And, since we've been deprived by anti-pollution laws of standing around leaning on our rakes watching the leaves burn, standing around leaning on our rakes watching the fish smoke is not a bad substitute.

There are degrees of smoking food, from the traditional cold-smoking meant to preserve food as well as to flavor it, to the current practice of throwing a handful of damp wood chips on the charcoal fire. Cold-smoking, done at temperatures usually no higher than 90 degrees, preserves food by drying it out and usually isn't done at home.

Hot-smoking, or hot-smoke cooking, which involves slightly higher temperatures, is much easier to do at home. Hot-smoking can preserve food, but is usually done to cook and impart flavor rather than to preserve. Throwing wood chips on a hot charcoal fire to produce fragrant smoke will add a bit of flavor, but is not really smoking because high temperatures will cook the food before the smoke has a chance to penetrate. To really impart a smoke flavor the food needs long exposure to slowly smoldering wood chips or chunks. Charcoal or electric coils can provide the heat that makes the chips smolder.

A charcoal grill can be used for smoke-cooking if it has a hood, or an apparatus especially for smoking can be purchased. Or, as Buzz Beam, a Maine hunting guide and longtime smoker, points out, you can use an old barrel, a cardboard box or a worn-out refrigerator. All that is needed is some fragrant wood, a low-temperature heat source to keep it smoldering and a means of trapping the smoke around the food.

The apparati designed especially for smoking will in general be fairly tall and thin so as to keep greater distance than in normal grilling between the food and the heat source at the bottom. The old standby smoker, called the Little Chief, is a 12-by-12-by-24-inch aluminum box with an electric heating element in the bottom, a pan to hold wood chips, three racks and a top.

Smoking times in the Little Chief vary from an hour or two to all day depending on the size and type of food being smoked and how much smoke flavor is desired. Though it isn't absolutely necessary, the food to be smoked is usually marinated or brined (soaked in a salt-water solution) first. The flavor added by marinating or brining nicely complements the smoky taste, which can be overwhelming by itself. Brining can also act as a preservative.

The Little Chief is not big enough to hold a huge whole turkey, but will smoke nearly anything else. Veteran smoker Alice Kelleter of Vinalhaven, Maine, has smoked various kinds of cheese in her Little Chief, as well as turkey breasts, pork chops and ribs, mussels (which she marinates beforehand and keeps in olive oil afterward) and salt.

The Little Chief comes with hickory shavings, which are replaced in the smokers every hour or so as they burn out. No charcoal is used. Small fish can be completely cooked as well as smoked in the Little Chief, but larger things like chickens or roasts will need additional cooking time in the oven or on a grill. The Little Chief is available in sporting goods and department stores, or by mail from L.L. Bean (Freeport, Maine 04033, telephone 207-865-3111, 24 hours a day) or the manufacturer, Luhr Jensen and Sons, Inc., PO Box 297, Hood River, Ore. 97031. Cost is about $55.

More often seen in kitchenware and hardware stores are charcoal-fired smokers, which look and act like barbecue grills that got taller. These smokers include a pan to hold liquid as part of their standard equipment, making them steamer-smokers. One company, Brinkmann, makes an add-on smoking element that fits on top of its regulation-style charcoal grill to elongate it. Brinkmann says its "Smoke'n Pit" can be used for smoking, roasting, steaming or barbecuing. Smoking in this case simply means putting pre-soaked wood chips on top of the burning charcoal. The food's exposure to smoke is controlled by how low the temperature is kept.

The Brinkmann smoker also is available in an electric version. The grill-cum-smoker is about $80, the electric smoker about $120.

Weber, renowned as maker of the dome-topped grill, also makes a smoker. It is taller and narrower than the grill and includes a special pan for water, but otherwise is strikingly similar to the grill. The smoker comes in two sizes; one 14 1/2 inches in diameter (about $100), the other 18 1/2 inches in diameter (about $120).

Although Weber obviously prefers that you buy both its grill and its smoker, Weber home economist Betty Hughes is able to offer some tips for cooks who want to double up with the grill. All vents should be left partially open, Hughes advises, and all should be open an equal amount. Use the indirect heating method, which means two piles of charcoal on opposite sides of the grill. Place a pan full of water, wine or other flavored liquid between the burning coals, though this is optional.

The rack's handles are designed so more charcoal or wood chips can be added to the burning fire as the food smokes. Make sure the rack handles, are placed directly above the two piles of burning charcoal. Wood chips should be soaked before they're put on the burning charcoal, but must be well drained or they'll put out the fire.

Neatly packaged mesquite and hickory wood chips and chunks are available in hardware, kitchenware and department stores, but there's no reason not to use locally available woods like oak, walnut, maple or fruitwood. In Cutler, Maine, Buzz Beam is able to gather sawdust from alder, hickory, oak or apple trees, save it for a year so it will dry out, and use it in his Little Chief. Soft woods like pine can't be used because they contain resins and will add an unpleasant flavor.

The only difference between chunks and chips or sawdust is that chunks burn longer. Chips or sawdust are usually used in slower-burner electric smokers, chunks with charcoal grills.