There seem to have been oyster feasts on the shores of the Chesapeake for as long as there have been oysters and people around to gather them. Mammoth mounds of oyster shells left by participants in aboriginal oyster orgies attest to a long-standing local interest in the bivalves.

And oysters have stirred the passions of emigrating Europeans since they (the oysters) were first discovered lying in seemingly infinite numbers in the mucky shallows of the bay.

The immigrants, learning oystering from the natives, managed to stave off starvation and gradually developed intelligent oyster cooking and eating practices. Accumulated knowledge points to the fact that oysters are at their quintessential best when eaten fresh and lively from their shells. Cooking them requires deft timing, but the natural affinity of the oyster with a wide range of fresh ingredients makes it a natural candidate for a starring and multiple role in a culinary celebration.

Autumn and winter, when oysters are at their plump and plentiful best, is the time to indulge you and your oyster-loving friends in a Chesapeake Bay Oyster Celebration. The salty tang of fresh Oysters on the Half Shell juxtaposed with the smoky fragrance of steaming Oysters Grilled Over Mesquite Chips in no way detracts from the rich creamy impact of a mug of Tidewater Oyster Chowder or dulls the palate for Grilled Skewered Oysters Wrapped in Bacon or Herbed Oyster and Broccoli Squares.

Because one doesn't have to live by oysters alone, include some other cherished Tidewater specialties. Backfin Crab Fondue, with Bread Sticks, Warmed Delmarva Chicken Salad and a chewy batch of Pesto and Anchovy Pizza will not only give the tastebuds an oyster break, but will fill up the non-oyster-lovers in the group.

In the autumn and winter, oysters are easy to find. Live ones, for eating raw and grilled on the half shell, are available by the bushel and peck at most reputable fresh-fish dealers. Shucked ones can be bought in jars at the seafood counter at supermarkets and can be used in the Tidewater Chowder, the Angels on Horseback and the Herbed Oyster and Broccoli Squares.

It would be a good idea to canvas the oyster-eating tendencies of your guests before ordering your oysters. Some oyster eaters think nothing of putting away 2 or 3 dozen grilled or raw oysters on the half shell, while others will eat very few. At an oyster feast, it is better to err on the generous side, bearing in mind that unused live oysters can be shucked and frozen for use later in chowder, stew or other cooked dishes.

Ideally, oysters should be opened as they are eaten. Though many of your party may be competent oyster shuckers, it is messy work, requiring gloves and an apron, so it is best to hire a shucker. Call around to caterers, fish dealers and raw bars; all are usually willing to give out the names and numbers of moonlighting oyster shuckers. If after making inquiries, you still haven't found anyone, try hiring a reliable student and teach him or her the ins and outs of oyster opening yourself.

The oysters should be thoroughly scrubbed with a stiff brush under cold, running water before opening. This can be done early in the day and the oysters kept in a cool garage or porch until the guests arrive. Don't refrigerate -- the oysters will die.

If the weather is clear, set up your raw bar, the grill and the shucker outdoors. Near the raw bar have ready plenty of paper plates, napkins and paper towels, and garbage cans to catch the empty shells. The rest of the menu can be served buffet fashion, indoors or out as the weather dictates. TIDEWATER OYSTER CHOWDER (12 to 14 servings)

1/2 pound salt pork, diced

3 large onions, finely chopped

4 stalks celery, trimmed and diced

4 cups potatoes, peeled and diced

Water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups half-and-half

3 pints oysters and their liquor

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon thyme

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a heavy dutch oven, saute' the salt pork over moderate heat until well browned and rendered of most of its fat. Remove the cracklings and set aside. In the salt pork fat saute' the onions and celery until tender. Add the potatoes, water to barely cover and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until the potatoes are just tender.

Add the half-and-half, the oysters and liquor, butter, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper and the reserved cracklings. Heat until very hot and the oysters curl up on the edges. Add salt if necessary.

Ladle into mugs and top with a sliver of butter and a few grindings of black pepper. OYSTERS ON THE HALF SHELL WITH HORSERADISH/CHILI SAUCE (For 6 to 7 dozen oysters)

Other than the following sauce, you will want to have plenty of lemon and lime wedges and hot pepper sauce to serve with the raw and grilled oysters on the half shell.

1 bushel scrubbed oysters

5 lemons, cut in wedges (approximately)

5 limes, cut in wedges (approximately)

Hot pepper sauce

FOR THE CHILI/HORSERADISH SAUCE:

2 cups chili sauce

1 small clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1/4 cup prepared horseradish

1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon, minced

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Shuck the oysters so that the oyster lies in the cuppped side of the shell and discard the flatter side. Nestle them in a platter lined with lettuce leaves, shredded lettuce or rock salt. Serve with Chili/Horseradish sauce, limes, lemons and hot pepper sauce.

For the sauce, several hours before serving, combine all ingredients and store, covered, in the refrigerator, to allow the flavors to develop. Makes 2 1/2 cups sauce. OYSTERS GRILLED OVER MESQUITE CHIPS (For 6 to 7 dozen oysters)

1 bushel scrubbed oysters

10 lemons and limes, cut in wedges

2 1/2 cups Chili/Horseradish Sauce (recipe above)

About the time your guests arrive, you will want to have a nice hot fire going in your barbeque grill. Have ready several hands full of soaked mesquite chips and several heavy-duty foil baking pans, each with an inch or so of rock salt on the bottom. These are to hold the oysters steady while they cook.

Preheat the pans of rock salt. The oysters can be grilled whole or on the half shell. If whole, arrange the oysters on top of the hot rock salt, in a single layer, with the rounded shell on the bottom and the flatter one on top. This way the curved shell holds in the juices when the oyster opens. If on the half shell, remove the flat part of the shell, leaving the cupped part to hold the oyster and its liquor. In either case place them so their shells are just touching.

A few minutes before putting the pans of oysters on the grill, add the mesquite chips to the fire. When they are producing a goodly amount of smoke, place the trays of oysters on the grilling rack above the fire and cover the grill. For oysters on the half shell, grill about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the oysters curl. For oysters in the shell, about 8 minutes, or until the shells are noticably open and the oysters steaming nicely.

It is a good idea to have enough trays to have one set in the grill and one set to refill. This will assure a steady stream of fragrant, hot-off-the-grill oysters. BACKFIN CRAB FONDUE WITH BREAD STICKS (Makes about 4 cups)

Fresh bread sticks, or fancy butter crackers make satisfying shovels for one to scoop up sumptious lumps of crab from this oppulent dip, while looking innocent of piggery.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

2 shallots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup madiera

1 pound backfin crab meat, picked over

1/4 cup real mayonnaise (don't use the reduced fat mayonnaise)

1/2 cup whipping cream

3 ounces cream cheese, cut in 1/4-inch dices and softened

1/4 teaspoon mace

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper, to taste

Zest of 1 lemon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the butter and saute' the shallots and garlic 5 minutes over moderate heat. Add the madeira and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.

Add crab meat, mayonnaise, whipping cream, cream cheese and mace and stir gently over medium low heat until warmed through.

Add hot pepper sauce, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste and correct seasonings. Turn into a fondue pot or chafing dish and keep warm, but not bubbling and serve with a basket of bread sticks and/or crackers. ANGELS ON HORSEBACK (Grilled Skewered Oysters Wrapped In Bacon with Mustard Sauce) (Makes 18 pieces)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup dry vermouth

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

18 oysters, shucked and drained

9 pieces thinly sliced bacon

18 wooden cocktail picks soaked in warm water 1 hour

FOR THE MUSTARD SAUCE:

1/2 cup dijon mustard

3 tablespoons tarragon vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry English mustard

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup fresh dill, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine garlic, vermouth, and pepper and marinate the oysters 2 hours, cut bacon in halves crosswise and heat it in a 300-degree oven in a single layer until partially cooked but still soft and not crisp. Drain oysters and wrap each one in a piece of bacon and fasten with a pick.

To make the sauce, combine dijon mustard, tarragon vinegar, brown sugar and dry mustard in the container of a blender and blend to mix thoroughly. With the motor running, gradually add the oil through the opening in the lid as if making mayonnaise. When all the oil has been added, add the dill and salt and pepper to taste. Allow to rest an hour or so before serving to develop flavor.

Grill the scallops over charcoal until bacon is browned and crisp, turning to brown evenly. Serve hot off the grill with Mustard Sauce. BAYSIDE WHITE PIZZA WITH PESTO AND ANCHOVIES (Makes 32 wedges)

This delicious pizza is really a convenience food in disguise. Start with some top-quality pita bread preferably purchased at a Middle Eastern specialty market. If you don't have any homemade pesto sauce squirreled away in your freezer, buy some from the refrigerator or freezer section of your local gourmet shop. Open a tin of imported anchovies and grate equal parts imported parmesan and romano cheese, and that's about all there is to it. This pizza is quick to make and just as quick to disappear.

4 pita breads, split, making 8 rounds

1/2 cup pesto

1 small tin anchovies, diced

1/2 cup freshly grated imported romano cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated imported parmesan cheese

Arrange the pita rounds in a single layer on cookie sheets and spread each one with about 1 tablespoon of pesto. Scatter 1/8 of the anchovy bits on each piece and top them with about 1 tablespoon each parmesan and romano for each round.

Bake in a 400-degree oven 7 to 10 minutes, or until very hot and lightly brown on top. Cut each round into 6 wedges and serve hot. HERBED OYSTER AND BROCCOLI SQUARES (Makes 24 2-inch squares)

Similar in texture to a quiche, but baked in a loaf pan and cut in squares, this dish can be prepared well ahead of time and served at room temperature.

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup shallots, minced

1 clove garlic, bruised

5 large eggs, beaten with a fork

10 ounces broccoli florets, blanched, drained and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons cream

1/3 cup dry bread crumbs, preferably sourdough

1/2 pound monterey jack cheese, grated

1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced

1 tablespoon fresh celery leaves, minced

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 pint shucked oysters, drained and coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 or 3 shakes cayenne pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and saute' the shallots and garlic clove until limp. Discard the garlic. Combine the eggs with the broccoli, cream, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, celery leaves, oregano and thyme and stir in the shallot mixture. Add the chopped oysters, salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.

Pour into buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes before cutting in squares.

Adapted from "Oysters" by Joan Reardon and Ruth Ebling, Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, Mass. 1984 WARMED DELMARVA CHICKEN AND POTATO SALAD (12 servings)

This braised, garlic perfumed "salad" can be prepared early in the day, reheated just before serving and kept warm in a chafing dish for those of your guests who need a break from oysters.

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

4 pounds chicken thighs, skinned, boned and cut in bite-sized pieces

1 whole bulb garlic, peeled, trimmed of blemishes and minced

1 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup milk

1 bay leaf

1/8 teaspoon mace

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)

2 pounds red skinned potatoes, scrubbed and cubed

3 egg yolks

1 cup whipping cream

Fresh, minced parsley for garnish

In a heavy dutch oven, heat the butter and saute' the chicken pieces and stir-fry over medium high heat until golden. Remove the chicken and saute' the garlic over moderate heat until golden brown, taking care not to scorch it.

Add the wine, stock and milk to the pot and scrape loose all the browned bits. Add the bay leaf, mace, salt and pepper and cayenne and return the chicken to the pot. Stir well, cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

Stir in the potatoes, cover again and simmer 15 minutes more, or until the potatoes are tender but still firm. If making ahead, pause at this point. About 1/2 hour before serving, reheat and proceed with the recipe.

With a skimmer, remove the chicken and potatoes to a chafing dish. Beat the egg yolks and cream together and stir into the pan drippings and cook until just thickened. Do not boil. Correct seasonings.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and potatoes and garnish with parsley. Light the chafing dish to keep the salad warm, but not bubbling. HOT LEMON SPICED CIDER (With or Without Rum) (1 serving)

This cider can be kept hot in a vacuum pump bottle, a large kettle over a sterno burner or in your crockpot. In any case, have handy some heatproof cups or mugs, a dish of lemon wedges, a generous quantity of cinnamon sticks and a bottle or more of dark Jamaican Rum and/or bourbon. Splash a bit of "spirit" (or not, as desired), a squeeze of lemon and a stick of cinnamon in a mug and fill with hot unpasturized cider. Neither rain, sleet, snow or too many oysters will keep you from feeling toasty warm with a mug of this spiced cider by your side.

1 cinnamon stick

2 wedges lemon

1 1/2 cups unpasturized cider

1 ounce dark Jamaican rum

1 ounce bourbon

Fill a mug with cinnmon stick and lemon wedges. Pour in cider and top with rum and bourbon as desired. APPLE CRISP WITH LEMON CREAM (10 servings)

7 or 8 large, tart cooking apples, peeled and sliced

Juice of 1 lemon

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest

7/8 cup flour

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

2 cups whipping cream, chilled

Sugar to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish

Toss the apples with the lemon juice and 1 teaspoon zest. Spread evenly in an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Combine flour, sugar and cinnamon and cut in butter until the mixture is the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Spread evenly over apples and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the apples are done. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes or so.

In a chilled bowl, whip the cream until moderately stiff and add sugar to taste. Fold in the remaining lemon zest.

To serve, cut the apple crisp into 2-inch squares and top each serving with a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.