When the subject of oysters and horses come in the same breath, one could only be talking about one of two things; those delectable grilled bacon-wrapped oysters intriguingly named "devils on horseback" or the annual pony penning and auction on Chincoteague.

Chincoteague (pronounced Shin-ku-teeg by born and bred Chincoteaguers) is home to one of America's most highly touted oysters, the briny Chincoteague, a small, firm oyster known for its salt-water tang. It is also the scene of one of the nation's most widely known annual events, the wild pony swim and auction immortalized by Marguerite Henry's book "Misty of Chincoteague."

Today, as occurs every July, the wild ponies of Assateague Island, together with their cuter-than-Bambi weanling foals, will be rounded up by the local fire department volunteers and herded across the narrow channel between Assateague and Chinoteague. Thousands of tourists and their eager children will gather on the Chincoteague shoreline, standing for hours in the midday heat waiting to glimpse and marvel at the spectacle of the ponies swimming, wild eyed and vigorous across the narrow channel into the waiting crowd.

Meanwhile local folk, who know better than to stand on the beach in the bugs and beating sun, will pass the time aboard a hodge-podge flotilla of boats composed of fishing craft, rowboats, stink pots and party boats lining both sides of the ponies' swimming route. They will nibble at appetizers, sip beer and wait, relaxed, for the tide to go slack so the ponies can safely swim the channel.

From start to finish the annual swim takes little more than five minutes. When the ponies reach the Chincoteague shore, the spectators step back and make way. The stallions, mares, colts and fillies trot nervously through the streets of Chincoteague to the fairgrounds where the auction is to be held Thursday. The ponies are penned in corrals to rest from their swim and the crowd breaks up and wanders off in search of lunch, which is very likely to include crab cakes or a bowl of thick delicious crab soup.

The "boat people" pull anchor and many of them head for the beautiful clean beaches of Assateague for an afternoon of picnicking, swimming and volleyball. Nearly every picnic cooler features southern fried chicken, macaroni salad in one form or another and plenty of beer and chips.

"Southern fried" is still the favorite way of preparing many foods in this tidewater Virginia community. A deep-fried oyster sandwich consisting of an oversized hamburger bun stuffed with crisp deep-fried oysters and slathered with homemade-type tartar sauce is a highlight of the Chincoteague Carnival which runs during pony running week.

This old-time fair with its old-fashioned ferris wheel, merry-go-round and chance games is a refreshing step into the past for visitors. Every year a colt is displayed for all to admire, pet and buy a chance on. Some lucky child will hold the winning raffle ticket on auction day and go home with a free pony. Most of the remaining foals will be sold at auction and the rest of the herd will make the return swim to Assateague to roam free for another year.

A wide variety of restaurants caters to the hungry tourists in search of local color and good, down-home cooking. Crab cakes ranging from the doughy to the sublime are prepared and consumed by the thousands. Fried "catch of the day," moist, fresh and crisp, is usually a good bet. Saute'ed soft-shell crabs, elegant in their simplicity, are a quintessential tidewater delicacy. Crab imperial, whether served in a crab carapace, a ramekin, or stuffed into a flounder, is prepared in Chincoteague with as much individual variation as are family recipes for southern fried chicken or crab cakes.

Better than hush puppies are crusty baked corn sticks, which go so well with fried food. Old-fashioned southern corn pudding that captures the sunny flavor of fresh-picked sweet corn is a real find and frequently accompanies fried chicken. Fresh fruit cobbler served with dollops of real whipped cream is always homemade and definitely worth loosening the belt a notch for. CRAB CAKES (Makes 6 to 8 cakes)

The most important rules to follow in making truly luscious crab cakes are few. Use only the best quality lump (backfin) crab meat. Don't use any more binder than absolutely necessary; don't handle the crab or break it up any more than absolutely necessary; don't saute' the cakes longer or hotter than to just heat them through and brown them nicely. Another trick is to gently shape the crab into cakes, again handling them as little as possible, dipping them in egg and then rolling in cracker crumbs. Then, chill them on a tray lined with waxed paper for at least 1/2 hour before saute'ing. The result is a firmer but very tender crab cake.

3 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise

1 tablespoon sour cream

2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 or 5 drops hot pepper sauce

1 pound backfin crab meat, picked over for shells

2 to 3 cups cracker crumbs

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

Lemon wedges

Tartar sauce, optional

Combine 1 beaten egg, mayonnaise, sour cream, chives, salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce. Gently fold in the crab. Form into cakes without packing them. Dip cakes in remaining 2 beaten eggs and roll in crumbs. Arrange cakes on a tray lined with waxed paper and chill 1/2 hour (up to 4 hours). Heat oil and butter together and saute' cakes about 3 minutes per side, until golden. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with lemon wedges and tartar sauce, if desired. TIDEWATER CRAB SOUP (12 to 14 first-course servings, 8 main-course servings)

The freshest of the fresh local summer tomatoes, corn, peppers, beans, peas and potatoes combined with freshly picked sweet crab meat make this soup an incomparable tribute to the bounty of the Tidewater. If prepared ahead of time and brought on a sailing weekend, this soup will provide you with an undisputable opportunity to sigh, lean back and say, "It doesn't get any better than this."

1/4 pound salt pork, diced

1/2 pound beef shin, trimmed and diced (reserve the marrow bone to add to the soup)

2 large onions, diced

3 large tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 2 cups plum tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 to 1 teaspoon seafood seasoning, or to taste

1 1/2 cups chicken or fish stock

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 sweet green pepper, diced

1 sweet red pepper, diced, or use another green one

Kernels cut from one large ear of corn (about 1 cup)

1 cup lima beans (optional)

1 cup green beans, trimmed and cut in 1-inch pieces

1 cup peas

2 cups red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and diced

1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced

1 to 3 teaspoons sugar to taste, depending on the sweetness of the vegetables

2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce

1 pound backfin crab meat, picked over

Salt to taste

In a heavy-bottom dutch oven saute' the salt pork until crisp and brown. Remove and reserve the salt pork pieces. To the fat, add the beef and brown thoroughly. Add the onions and continue cooking about 10 minutes until limp and lightly brown. Pour off any extra fat and add the tomatoes, black pepper, salt pork pieces, seafood seasoning, stock and reserved marrow bone. Cover and simmer 1 hour.

Remove cover and add the celery, peppers, corn, lima beans, green beans, peas, potatoes, parsley, sugar and worcestershire sauce. Return to a simmer and cook, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 1/2 hour (if you are preparing this soup to serve in a day or two, stop at this point, cool soup and refrigerate. To serve, reheat and continue).

Stir crab meat in gently and add salt to taste. Heat through and serve. TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN (8 servings)

2 pounds lard (or substitute 4 cups vegetable oil, enough so the oil is 2 inches deep in the fryer)

6 pounds chicken pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Heat lard or oil in a deep-fryer to 375 degrees. Wash chicken pieces and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper. Beat eggs and combine with milk. Dip each piece of chicken in the egg mixture and then dredge in the flour. Fry a few pieces at a time, taking care not to crowd them, until deeply golden. Frying time should be between 8 to 12 minutes depending on the size of the pieces.

Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining pieces. Serve hot or cool and pack for a picnic, if desired. MACARONI SALAD (8 servings)

This salad has a pleasing sweet-sour tang missing in ordinary macaroni salad.

1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked and drained

1/2 cup onion, diced

2/3 cup celery, diced

1/2 cup sweet red and/or green pepper, diced

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

3 tablespoons green pickle relish

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons prepared brown mustard

1 cup mayonnaise, homemade if possible

2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, to taste

Salt to taste

Rinse cooked pasta under cold water and drain thoroughly. Combine remaining ingredients, adding sugar and salt last, to taste. Toss with the macaroni and chill several hours before serving. DEEP-FRIED OYSTER SANDWICH (8 servings)

Properly fried oysters are an exquisite contrast in textures. The soft, creamy, barely cooked oyster enclosed in a delicately crisp crust can't be improved upon. But nestle these crisp gems inside a good crusty roll spread generously with homemade tartar sauce and they take on a whole new personality.

4 cups vegetable oil for deep frying

3 large eggs

3/4 cup milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 quart select oysters

Soda cracker crumbs for dipping

8 large, crusty rolls, homemade if possible

1 recipe tartar sauce (see below)

Lemon wedges

Heat oil in a heavy skillet to 375 degrees. Oil should be 1 1/2 inches deep. Beat the eggs, milk, salt and pepper together. Wash the oysters and blot dry with paper towels. Dip them one at a time in the egg mixture and then in the cracker crumbs. Deep-fry a few at a time, taking care not to crowd or overcook them, until golden. Drain on paper towels.

To serve, split the rolls, heated if desired, and stuff them with freshly fried oysters. Serve immediately, passing the tartar sauce and lemon wedges. TARTAR SAUCE (Makes 1 1/4 cups)

For those who eschew the "lemon only" route with seafood, this tartar sauce is everything a delicious tartar sauce should be. It is the perfect complement for fried fish, oysters, soft-shell crabs or crab cakes. It is a must on fried oyster or crab cake sandwiches.

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1/4 cup finely chopped dill pickles

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill weed

1 teaspoon minced capers (optional)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons white wine or tarragon vinegar

1 cup mayonnaise

Hot pepper sauce to taste, 2 or 3 shakes

Combine the onion, pickles, chives, parsley, dill and capers in a bowl. Dissolve the mustard and salt in the vinegar and stir in the onion mixture with the mayonnaise. Add hot pepper sauce to taste. Chill several hours before serving. FRIED CATCH OF THE DAY (8 servings)

The cornmeal, pancake mix, flour and cracker crumb controversy continues. All are used as breading for fish in various restaurants and homes in Chincoteague but this version produces particularly light and crisp fish.

3 eggs, well beaten

3 tablespoons milk or light cream

Salt and pepper to taste

3 pounds fish fillets

2 1/2 cups soda cracker crumbs

Oil or fat or a combination to 1 1/2 inches deep in a fryer

Combine eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Wash fish and pat dry. Dip in egg mixture and roll in cracker crumbs. Coat enough fish pieces at one time to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat oil in fryer. Add the coated pieces all at once, cooking 1 to 4 minutes per side depending on the thickness of the pieces. Regulate the temperature so that the pieces turn a golden brown. Take care not to overcook. Drain on paper towels and repeat with the remaining fish. Serve with lemon wedges and tartar sauce. CRAB IMPERIAL (4 servings)

Crab imperial remains one of the most frequently ordered seafood dishes in many Chincoteague dinner houses. Variations are legion and the question as to whether or not to use a cream sauce as a base has never been resolved. Either way, crab imperial is an indisputably rich and elegant dish requiring minimal time and effort. It can be made in a single casserole, individual au gratin dishes, ceramic scallop shells or washed, natural crab carapaces.

1 egg, beaten

1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise

2 or 3 shakes hot pepper sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce

Juice of 1/2 lemon

3/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/8 teaspoon mace

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 pound backfin crab meat, gently picked over

1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped red pepper

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup butter, softened

Whisk together egg, mayonnaise, hot pepper sauce, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, dry mustard, salt, mace and pepper. Fold in crab and peppers and correct seasoning. Rub together the bread crumbs and 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter. Use the remaining butter to grease the baking container(s). Spoon the crab mixture into the buttered dish(es) and top with buttered bread crumbs. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the container, in a 375-degree oven. Run under the broiler a few seconds to brown the top. Serve hot. CORN STICKS (Makes 12 corn sticks)

So much more likely to be light and crisp, so much less likely to be oversweetened, greasy and sodden than hush puppies, corn sticks are the perfect bread to serve with Chincoteague meals. Cast-iron corn stick pans are available at most cookware shops and some hardware stores.

3 tablespoons melted butter or bacon drippings

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups stone ground cornmeal

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 teaspoons sugar, to taste

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

Grease the corn stick mold with butter or drippings and heat in the oven until very hot. In the meantime, prepare the batter: combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine the wet ingredients and stir quickly into the dry mixture, using as few strokes as possible. Spoon batter into the hot mold and bake in a 425-degree oven 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. SWEET CORN PUDDING (6 servings)

Sweet corn pudding is down-home, simple and simply delicious, but don't bother making it unless fresh sweet corn is available.

3 large eggs, beaten

2 cups corn kernels scraped from the cob (approximately 2 ears)

2 cups half-and-half or milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons melted butter plus extra for casserole dish

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, depending on the sweetness of the corn

Generously butter a 1 1/2-quart casserole. Combine all ingredients and pour into the casserole. Bake in a 350-degree oven about 45 minutes or until the pudding is set. FRESH FRUIT COBBLER (6 to 8 servings)

Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, plums or nectarines all make a wonderful summer cobbler. It is best served warm from the oven with sweetened whipped cream, but Yankees have been known to compromise fresh fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

3 cups fresh fruit, washed, drained, cut in bite-sized pieces as needed

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg when using peaches, plums or nectarines

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

2 cups whipping cream, chilled

3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

Place empty bowl for whipping cream in the refrigerator to chill. Spoon thoroughly drained fruit into a 3-quart baking dish. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and spices together in a mixing bowl. Stir in sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla and lemon zest and beat until smooth. Pour batter over the fruit in the casserole and bake about 1 hour in a 350-degree oven, until top is golden brown.

To whip cream, remove chilled bowl from the refrigerator and add the chilled cream. Beat on high 1 minute. Sift in the confectioners' sugar and beat until the cream holds soft peaks.

To serve, spoon a serving of warm cobbler onto a dessert plate and plop on a generous dollop of whipped cream. (Two dollops are better.)