For purposes of most discussions, the cooking population can be divided into two groups; the aesthetes and the clean. Talk about cutting boards and it's immediately clear who exactly is who.

The clean -- whether they are that way naturally or through health department regulation -- look at a wooden cutting board and see colonies of life-threatening bacteria and other assorted grunge lurking in the grain. The aesthete looks at the wooden cutting board and sees a product of nature, receptive to the touch of human or knife, and warm to contemplate.

To the clean, any material that can be scrubbed, boiled and bleached is a thing of beauty. Health departments agree; wooden cutting boards can no longer be used in any commercial food establishment for just the reason the clean population has always suspected -- they are difficult to sterilize as completely as health departments require.

So commercial establishments use either plastic or rubber boards. But that doesn't mean wood cutting boards aren't safe for use at home. After all, you don't have a sneeze guard over your salad bowl, do you?

Janice Cory of B.K. Adams, a Vermont company that makes high-quality wooden cutting boards, says that in the 30 years her company has been making wooden products they've never had a complaint.

The advantages wood has over rubber and plastic are mainly aesthetic, but there are some more practical ones, too. The most comfortable surface for cutting on is a relatively soft one, which wood is. Soft surfaces allow the knife to sink in just the slightest bit, which has two effects; the knife edge is less likely to become dulled, and the hand that holds the knife is less likely to get tired out. Very hard, smooth surfaces repel the knife and make it slide around and bounce back, and that's very hard on your hands and wrists if you have lots of chopping to do.

The next most receptive material, rubber, is used in a popular brand of cutting boards called Sani-TUFF, available mainly at restaurant supply houses. Although the manufacturer recommends against putting these boards in the dishwasher, they can be scrubbed with very hot water and even bleached.

These boards feel soft but a little stubborn when you cut on them. The knife sinks in but then tends to stop abruptly, so they feel just slightly less comfortable than wood. But they are so heavy that they aren't apt to slide around on the counter, and there is no worry about warping. The surface will eventually get roughed up a bit with very heavy chopping, but they can be resurfaced by the manufacturer if you want to get them smooth again.

Variations on plastic boards (usually the material is white and named something beginning with "poly") are the easiest of all to keep clean, but they are hard on knives and feel very unforgiving when you try to chop on them. You can bleach them, however, to keep them spotless, and you can use a cleanser on them.

The best wooden boards are made of laminated strips of hardwood -- usually maple. The larger the board's surface, the thicker the board should be.

The enemies of wooden boards are heat and water, especially if applied unevenly. Water makes the wood expand, heat makes it contract. If the board stands on a damp counter, for instance, one side will expand and the board may warp. If the board is kept next to a cooktop, the side closest to the heat may contract, with the same result.

B.K. Adams recommends that after these boards are used they should be washed with hot soapy water, rinsed well, then dried thoroughly, and cooks who swear by wood agree that this is the best way to handle them. When they start looking white and peaked they can be oiled with a thin application of boiled linseed oil, or vegetable oil.

What size to buy? Usually the largest one that will fit on your counter. Some people find it convenient to have a very small one on hand, too, for times when you only have one clove of garlic to chop. For carving meat, buy a board with a "moat" around it -- a little depression that collects all the escaped juices.