At a potluck singles' supper, "potluck" refers to the food and the people. Taking a A chance on both counts, a group of singles gathered recently at the Alexandria apartment of veteran partygiver Steve Mills.

In the kitchen, Lisa discussed monkfish, her contribution to the meal. She thought the fish must have come from New Orleans, she said. What a coincidence. Stan went to prep school in New Orleans.

Two slender women sat on the couch, talking to one another the entire evening. They each ate a lone piece of grilled chicken. Then they left.

In the dining room, where the dozen or so guests sat at a large oval table, a quiet, dark-haired woman filled her plate with food, took seconds, then sampled each dessert. Later, when asked if she liked the party, she replied: "Let's just say I liked the food."

Eating while meeting can prompt conversation, signal alienation, pacify the disappointed. Food is a tool, an escape, a manipulator.

For women, this interplay has new boundaries. Liberation has made the situation all the more complicated.

Traditionally labeled as the nurturing sex, the cooks, the entertainers, some women don't want to be seen that way anymore. Women often bring less elaborate dishes to his potluck dinners than men, says Mills, who has been staging singles' suppers for six years. While "there is always the guy who brings potato salad from Safeway," says Mills, women often go out of their way not to meet "domestic" expectations.

Carolyn Roth, a 35-year-old corporate chef for Duron Paint Co., waits a while before she'll cook dinner for a man. She has to overcome the expectation that the man may be thinking 'Oh, you're going to cook for me, you're a good person to date.'

Roth, who belongs to Entrees Inc., a singles dining club, says she frequently gets into discussions with men about cooking, but gets the feeling that the professional women at the dinners don't want to appear interested in the subject.

In addition, women, who have traditionally been lauded for their lack of self-indulgence, their love of white wine, their litheness, may not want to be seen that way anymore.

"Women are not supposed to have appetites," says a single woman who loves to eat -- and does -- in front of men, sometimes under fire of comments such as, "You're not going to eat that roll, are you?"

Another woman, who dates men she met through placing personals ads in Washingtonian magazine, says she doesn't hesitate to order a scotch on the first let's-meet-for-a-drink date, even if the man doesn't order anything. There are "a large number of nondrinking, nonsmoking men out there," says the woman, who adds that she likes to drink. "That's part of the package," she says.

Roth, who characterizes herself as "plump," says she has answered Washingtonian personals ads that stress "slender" as a prerequisite by writing: "What's so wonderful about being skinny? You don't know what you're missing." (Roth added that "skinny" is not on her "checklist" for male qualifications, but she once dated a bald man, and "bald" isn't on her checklist either.)

Whatever the sex roles, encounters over eating still have many plusses: romance and excitement to name two. On a first date at a fancy New York restaurant, 36-year-old local graphic designer Elizabeth Elliott was charmed by her escort who kept passing her romantic notes written on borders of the sugar packets. Another woman said she was wooed by a man who took her on "culinary tours." The first series involved Washington's macho steak parlors, then came a run on local country inns.

Eating encounters can also be cruel. One 38-year-old public interest attorney said her ex-boyfriend staged his break-up with her at the Tabard Inn instead of either of their homes so she couldn't make a scene.

Cruelty, of course, isn't the sole province of men. Joan Hendrickson, executive director of the National Association of Single Persons and owner of the Georgetown Connection, said she has a female client who gave a first date the brush-off by telling him: "I don't think I can eat enough to make it a second date worth my while."

However liberated a woman may say she is, many still feel uncomfortable eating a lot in front of men. "You can't seem eager about the food just as you can't seem eager about the men," sums up one woman who frequents cocktail parties and receptions.

Then there are women who can't eat at all in front of some men. Mary Beth Baluta, a 31-year-old Washingtonian in the convention services field, is one of them. Baluta says that if she's "really attracted to someone," she gets "emotionally charged up and happy" and can't concentrate on eating.

Ordering sloppy or cumbersome food on a first date, such as lobster or fettucine, is another no-no for some women. Hendrickson, for example, said she refuses to order french onion soup with a new man anymore after the cheese got stuck on the spoon at one dinner date.

For other women, all is put aside for the sake of a good time. Elliott said she "totally porked out" on a first date at a crab house in Baltimore, even though her date "sat there with his eyes bugging out."

Dating and dieting can be difficult partners for women, too. The 38-year-old public interest attorney says being on a diet is "tricky" on dinner dates because she wants to seem sophisticated about food but at the same time maintain her diet.

Broiled fish entrees just don't have enough cachet, and when it comes to sweets, she resolves the issue by saying, "I don't eat sugar," in the hopes that her date will think she has a physical problem and not pursue it. Often, she says, men use her bland orders to show off their sophistication. "Oh, the so-and-so sounds much more interesting," they may say.

Women like adventurous eaters, says Stel Gibson, who runs Entrees Inc. But many don't like it when men try to show off with food. Betsy Brown, a 31-year-old aerobics teacher, said on a first date at a Vietnamese restaurant, the man wanted to show her his vast knowledge of the cuisine. After repeated warnings that she didn't like spicy food, the date proceeded to order fiery dishes. She couldn't eat any of them and never went out with him again.

At an Open University wine-tasting class, one man turned off at least a few women by circulating around the room, swirling his glass of red wine, boasting of his wine terminology. "Oh, the wine, it's so big, it's so big," he kept announcing.

If men don't like women who eat a lot, at least some women like men who eat a lot, and who enjoy eating. "A man's relationship to food reflects his relationship to life," says Roth, who says that a man who doesn't like to eat is a man who isn't sensual.

Not that women like men who are gluttons. One woman reports that on a first date at a Georgetown restaurant, her date ravenously ate all the food on his plate, sopping up every drop of ketchup with the french fries and then proceeded to finish her dinner leftovers with the same zeal. Throughout the ordeal, his conversation ran concomitantly with his chewing, the woman said.

On another first date, this time at Gary's, a 38-year-old sales executive said that after a couple of drinks, she felt she needed to eat something before making the drive home. She asked her date if he'd like to share an appetizer with her. He said yes, then proceeded to leave her exactly one bite of it.

One of the more ticklish situations the liberated, or so-called liberated woman comes across these days is who pays the check. Hendrickson says she finds that while many women offer to pay, most of them don't end up paying.

Brown says she often offers to pay, although she is insulted if her date then agrees to it. Another woman says she once dated a man whom she called "a skinflint." His standard order never wavered from an entree and a glass of water. With him, she always insisted on paying so she could order wine and dessert without feeling she was ripping him off.

Hendrickson has one client who will pay her way on a date if she doesn't want to see the man again. It's a way for her to "settle the debt," according to Hendrickson. She doesn't want to owe him anything.

Roth said she assumes she is paying the check until it comes, and so orders accordingly -- independent of the cost of the entree. After placing her entree order on a dinner date one evening, the escort then informed Roth of his paying rule -- whoever initiates the date, pays. He had initiated the date.

The two had a pleasant time, and Roth was perplexed when the man didn't call for a return engagement. He finally called about a month later, and said that he had had a wonderful time, but that she had committed a terrible faux pas on their first date. She had ordered the most expensive dish in the menu, and he had paid the bill. An "outrageous fight" ensued, according to Roth, and she never went out with him again.

The logical progression of eating events with a new man usually starts with a drink, then proceeds to dinner. Of course, the meeting itself often occurs at a food event. Buffet table lines, supermarket checkouts and cocktail party hors d'oeuvres trays all provide fuel for discussion, even though it invariably starts out with "oh, what's good?"

"What do you do and how are your grapefruit?" is the repeated type of comment Elliott has gotten while standing on line at the Georgetown "Singles" Safeway.

After a first date, the next meeting may be at an event, such as a play or movie, and then depending on how things are going, a less formal eating exchange, such as a picnic -- or perhaps dinner at someone's house.

Hendrickson says that women generally get "turned off" by premature invitations to dinner at a man's residence. "Women think it's a setup," she says.

Then again, says Hendrickson, eating may not be the "best thing to do" on a first date; it's hard to really be yourself. She has one client who is sick and tired of dinner dates. One of her more exciting alternatives was helping a guy move.