BEFORE REFRIGERATORS, in fact before the iceman, people who raised their own meat and caught their own fish preserved them by smoking. Necessity blended with craft to produce woodsy, pungent hams and bacons, turkeys and fish--without much variation, if truth be told.

Today the necessity may be gone but the taste remains, and the craft of smoking is undergoing a renaissance, both at home and in eight-foot-high, stainless steel commercial indoor smokehouses. This time around the chickens and ducks hang over apple wood, the legs of lamb are rubbed with curry, the eye of round is marinated in red wine and cognac. As smoking is increasingly a science it becomes even more an art form.

It's an art practiced by three Washington retailers who see consumer interest in smoked meats on the rise. For Bill Wagner, Mark Caraluzzi and Mandie Wolf, old-fashioned wood is combined with electricity to produce foods that appeal to modern-day palates.

Gone forever are the days of the old cinder block smokehouse, says Wagner of his Mount Airy Locker Co., a meat business started by his father in 1954. "It was too difficult to control the heat and smoke," he says, and the procedure took a long time. Wagner remembers rubbing a 25-pound country ham and slabs of bacon with his father's special dryrub of salt, pepper and brown sugar and leaving them to cure for six or seven weeks. They'd build a smouldering pile of green hickory in the pit and the pork would hang over it, in the midst of the smoke, for three days. "It was just to give it color," Wagner says, "it wouldn't be cooked through."

Today, he says the demand for the old-style salt-cured country ham is limited. Wagner, who runs the family business with his brother, Tom, says "people are too concerned about salt." So he dropped the old way in favor of more modern curing and smoking techniques. The cure still uses the same ingredients as the old family dry rub, but it contains less salt and is dissolved in a secret liquid blend and injected directly into the ham. He lets it soak for five to seven days, depending on size, then smokes it over hickory in the new electric smoker for 12 to 20 hours. The bacon is now cured in the original dry rub for 12 days and then smoked for eight to 10 hours.

The advantage, Wagner says, is that the electric smoker produces fully cooked meats in less time, with more consistent smoke flavor. He sells 1,000 pounds of bacon and 250 pounds of ham in an average week, an increase of 25 percent, he estimates, in the three years he's had the smoker.

Caraluzzi, chef-owner of the American Cafe restaurants, is doing more than simply hamming it up with his smoker. After his turkey breasts have marinated for 24 hours in an apple juice and salt solution, he sets the temperature low and humidity high in the 1,100-pound stainless-steel smoker, with its 500-pound capacity.

The turkey breasts hang for seven hours in a low oven. Smoke is drawn into the oven and circulated over the meat from a separate enclosure piled high with applewood shavings. Whole chickens and ducks smoke an average of five hours; beef for three; like turkey, the lamb smokes for seven. When they're smoked through, Caraluzzi releases a valve that fully opens a tiny chimney and the smell of applewood fills the kitchen. The meat is cooled to room temperature and stored overnight in the refrigerator to "firm up."

The next day, chefs cube some of the chickens and turkeys into waldorf salads; lamb slices will garnish composed salads. Ducks are special order, and most of them will be picked up and carried away. The leftovers are sold in the markets housed above his Georgetown and Capitol Hill restaurants.

"There are two reasons to smoke," Caraluzzi says, "to preserve and to flavor." His purpose is flavor. After a disappointing search across the country for mail-order smoked meats turned up all "hammy" tasting products, he bought a smoker, knocked out a wall for its installation, and began smoking his own three years ago. His plan for 1985, he says, is to sell his smoked meats nationwide--fresh in Washington, D.C., and frozen elsewhere.

Wolf, vice president of Fishermen's Marketing Co. in Rockville, Md., has spent the last year trying to develop a perfect blend of fruitwood, maple and small amounts of hickory chips with which to smoke the various salmons, sablefish, whitefish, bluefish, rainbow trout, sturgeon, white marlin, shad fillets, oysters and scallops she offers in the company's two retail outlets. The goal is to achieve a distinctive taste and golden brown color. "The proportions of wood fall into the 'secret recipe' category," she says, and only now is she satisfied with the blend. While the company considers smoked fish secondary to its line of fresh fish, sales have increased five-fold from its initial 30 pounds a week, Wolf says.

Before Fishermen's opened its two retail stores a year ago, one in Bethesdaand the other in Rockville, it operated out of a truck along MacArthur Boulevard, selling both smoked (but prepared by others) and fresh fish. Once it was convinced there was a market for smoked products, it invested in an electric smoker. Smoking has since become Wolf's full-time job. Fishermen's has given its product the Japanese brand name Arigato, which translated means "thank you."

When she isn't experimenting with the wood, she's developing new products to sell in the stores. In season, there are smoked oysters and scallops. Year 'round, there's a smoked fish burger and a smoked salmon spread for sandwiches. A favorite invention, but one that only occasionally makes it onto the shelves, is a thinly sliced fish jerky from salmon, pollack and flounder dried in the smoker four hours. "It is great, but the problem is price. It's hard to market something that feels like a feather in your hand, yet costs a couple of dollars," she says.

How are consummers reacting to these developments? "People are concerned with their salt intake and are leery of nitrites and the carcinogenic effect of smoke on meat," says Wolf. Both she and Caraluzzi say they are careful to smoke with a minimal amount of salt, which decreases product shelf life to two weeks; and neither uses nitrates to preserve the products. As for the effect of smoke on meat, "no one makes a diet of it and if they are concerned about such a minimal amount, they'd better not go out on the street," Wolf says.

Public awareness of smoked meat products has been increasing for a decade in the United States, says Gill Martini, president of Portland, Oregon's, Enviro-Pak, the manufacturer of the food processing ovens that Wolf, Caraluzzi and Wagner use to smoke their meats. Processed meat consumption has doubled in the past decade, from 12 to 24 percent of the total meat purchased in the United States, he says. Still, the United States is a fresh-meat country, even though Dr. Ewen Wilson, Director of Economics at the American Meat Institute, says from 1972 to 1982 processed meat production increased from 6.8 to 8.2 billion pounds annually. "When you compare consumption of processed meats versus fresh to that in Germany, we've still got a long way to go," explains Martini. Approximately 80 percent of the meat consumed in Germany is processed, he says.

From a marketing standpoint the problem is that consumers don't know how to use smoked meats in new and different recipes, Wolf says. In an effort to increase awareness, she tacks recipes on the market walls for consumers to copy and has plans to write a tiny cookbook.

"There's a lot of potential for smoked meats out there; sales are increasing," says American Cafe's Caraluzzi. "They'll probably make next year's list of what's in and out." Just to keep a step ahead, here are some local smokehouse recipes to get you started. MARK CARALUZZI'S SMOKED CHICKEN WITH PASTA IN MUSTARD CREAM SAUCE (4 main course servings, 6 as a first course) 8 tablespoons butter 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped 1 small shallot, finely chopped 3/4 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon dijon or creole mustard 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus 1 tablespoon for boiling pasta 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 pound fresh fettucine or linguine 1 whole smoked chicken, skinned, boned and cut into bite-sized pieces 1/2 cup plum tomatoes without juice, diced 2 tablespoons fresh basil, julienned (substitute 1 teaspoon dried) 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

In a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients, melt the butter and lightly saute' the garlic and shallots, without browning, for 3 minutes. With the heat on low, add the cream, mustard, salt and pepper; and mix well to blend. Remove from heat and set aside.

Boil the pasta in a gallon of water with 1 tablespoon of salt until desired doneness, 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook. When pasta is almost finished, add chicken pieces, tomatoes and basil to the cream sauce. Place over low heat to warm. Drain the pasta well and add to the skillet. Add the cheese and toss thoroughly. Equally portion all ingredients into warmed serving bowls. Serve with extra grated cheese on the side. AMERICAN CAFE SMOKED CHICKEN WALDORF (6 to 8 servings) 3 1/2 cups celery, finely diced 1 cup walnuts or pecans 3/4 pound smoked turkey or chicken, diced 1 cup seedless grapes 2/3 cup mayonnaise 1 1/4 tablespoons dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt Pinch freshly ground pepper 1 large crunchy apple, cored and cubed Fresh pineapple slices for garnish Mix celery, nuts, turkey or chicken, grapes, mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper together. Just before serving, cut the apple and toss with the other ingredients. Garnish with fresh pineapple. AMERICAN CAFE MINTED CUMERLAND SAUCE FOR SMOKED CHICKEN (Makes 1 1/2 cups) 12-ounce jar currant jelly 12 ounces red wine (beaujolais or gamay) 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves 3 1-by- 1/4-inch pieces lemon peel 3/4 cup fresh mint

Bring jelly, wine, cloves and lemon peel to a boil. Reduce by half (approximately 20 to 25 minutes). Remove from heat and steep mint in sauce for 1 hour. Remove mint leaves and refrigerate sauce. MO JELLEMA'S SMOKED SALMON SPREAD 1 pound smoked salmon, crumbled 3/4 to 1 pint sour cream 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice 2 teaspoons fresh dill, finely chopped

Lightly mix all ingredients together. Use as a spread for sandwiches or as an hors d'oeuvres with crackers. MANDIE WOLF'S SMOKED FISH BURGERS (8 to 10 croquettes) 1 pound smoked salmon or bluefish About 1 cup bread crumbs 1 egg Juice of 1 lemon 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper to taste 2 tablespoons butter Hard rolls, for serving 8 slices tomato

Crumble salmon and mix with egg, lemon juice and pepper to taste. Mix in just enough bread crumbs to hold the mixture together lightly. Form into patties and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll in additional bread crumbs and saute' in butter until lightly browned on both sides. Serve on toasted rolls with a thick slice of tomato.