Azalea mania comes with spring in the South, and tourists come here from all over the United States for the four-day North Carolina azalea festival, which starts Thursday. For the 39th consecutive year, they'll be coming to Wilmington to tour private and public houses and gardens such as Orton Plantation, Airlie Gardens and Greenfield Park, to smell the blossoms -- and to sample the local cuisine.

In its almost four decades, the festival has grown to include, in addition to the traditional queen pageant, performances by celebrities (Wayne Newton, Roger Miller and Barbara Eden will be on hand this year), arts and craft shows, a horse show, fireworks, the Clyde Beatty Circus and more.

Actually, azalea mania hits all over the Southeast, and azalea-gazers make leaf-watchers look like slow learners. They hit the trail on foot, by car and bike, plane and bus, from Richmond to Pinehurst to Wilmington to Savannah to Mobile to Natchez, puff, to the coastal islands and even down to Texas (though the Texans are better at bluebonnet and cacti). Wherever, there is one immutable truth: IL,3.6p whether on home ground or wayfaring, azalea-gazers are always hungry.

It's no wonder. There they are out in the fresh air, breathing deeply of the xl scented air, sea breezes and spring pollen. They are on foot, treading along brick walks lined with live oaks, skipping over pine needle and oyster-shell paths, crossing green lawns and skirting rice fields. They are taking pictures, taking notes, pushing prams, leading children and dogs, gazing in groups or rambling along in stuporous solitude.

Spring weather will stir up everybody's appetite, and southerners will have a party at the drop of an azalea blossom anyway. So when the azaleas are blooming in the garden, the hostess is liable to be bustling in the kitchen.

Recipes handed down from one generation to the next are plentiful, but capturing them on paper can be tricky. Sometimes a hostess does not wish to share the recipe, but usually it is just that the recipe has not been written down.

A visiting azalea-gazer may ask, "How did you make that delicious fish stew?"

The answer is likely to be, "Why honey, I just used the fish Dabney caught, and added some of Mama's dried herbs, and added a splash of stock I boiled up with fish bones and celery leaves, and sort of cooked it all together for a while."

The inexact description sounds awful and belies what was, in fact, a chowder at once rich and delicate, filled with firm morsels of fish and tender potatoes. Served with crusty bread and a crisp salad and a good white wine, it was a meal to recommend azalea-gazing. And if you have listened carefully, and you like to cook, you have probably picked up enough information to approximate the chowder recipe.

Sometimes it is simpler to have a recipe in your head, anyway. When on the azalea trail, it is fun to ask about local recipes, and here is a collection of some: CHILLED SHRIMP SOUP (6 servings)

1/2 pound shrimp, cooked and coarsely chopped

1 small-medium cucumber, peeled and finely diced

1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced, plus extra for garnish

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 quart buttermilk

Mix together the shrimp, cucumber and seasonings. Stir in the buttermilk and chill thoroughly. Serve in chilled soup plates. Garnish with fresh dill. SQUASH PUPPIES (Makes about 2 1/2 dozen)

5 medium-size yellow squash

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 medium onion, chopped

3/4 cup self-rising cornmeal

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Vegetable oil (for frying)

Wash squash, trim off ends. Place squash in dutch oven, cover with water and cook over medium heat until tender -- about 20 minutes. Drain squash and mash; drain again. Mix squash with egg, buttermilk, onion, cornmeal and flour. Drop mixture by scant tablespoonfuls into hot (350 degree) oil in frying pan. Fry about 5 minutes. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve hot. DUSTY'S WILMINGTON SEAFOOD CHOWDER (6 servings)

1/4 pound salt pork, cubed

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon salt

Dash of paprika for color

6 potatoes, peeled, cut up

2 large onions, chopped

1 pound cleaned, boned firm-fleshed fish (grouper, snapper, kingfish, etc.)

1 pound shrimp, cleaned

1 pound crab meat, picked over

Pepper to taste

Cayenne to taste

In heavy skillet, fry out salt pork. Remove with slotted spoon and reserve. Drain grease into a container. Wash skillet, pour grease back into it, and over medium to low heat, stir in flour, making a smooth paste called "yellow gravy" by fishermen. When paste is smooth and yellow (be careful not to burn), gradually add 2 cups water, stirring constantly. Add butter, salt and fried salt pork cubes and paprika. Pour into large soup pot. Add 2 cups water, potatoes and onions. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer until vegetables are tender. Then add fish and allow to heat together about 5 minutes. Then, carefully stir in shrimp and crab meat. Add liquid (water or fish stock) as needed for consistency. Add salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika to taste. Let simmer together about 20 minutes.

When chowder is hot and fragrant, serve in soup plates. SHRIMP-STUFFED EGGPLANT (2 servings)

1 large eggplant

4 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 cup cooked shrimp

Salt to taste

1 cup toasted bread crumbs plus extra for sprinkling

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

Wash eggplant and remove stem end. Cut in half lengthwise. Drop halves in boiling salted water and cook 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in skillet and saute' onion until golden brown. Add shrimp, mix thoroughly and remove from heat. Scoop pulp from eggplant, leaving shell 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle shells with salt. Dice eggplant pulp and add to shrimp and onion mixture. Add bread crumbs, lemon juice, egg yolk and parsley. Fill shells with mixture. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Pour 1 tablespoon melted butter over each half. Bake in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. CAPE FEAR CRAB CAKES (4 servings)

1 pound backfin crab meat, picked over

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 teaspoon dry mustard

2 teaspoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Angostura bitters

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup milk

Cracker crumbs, medium to fine

Combine all ingredients except cracker crumbs and milk. Mix carefuly to avoid breaking up lumps of crab meat. Form into 8 cakes, dip in milk, then in cracker crumbs. Place on lightly greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Good with caper sauce. (Recipe follows.) CAPER SAUCE (Makes about 2 cups)

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon flour

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Salt to taste

1/2 cup capers

In saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour, stirring constantly. Slowly add broth, stirring constantly. When sauce thickens, salt to taste and add capers. Heat together 2 or 3 minutes. Serve hot with crab cakes. (This sauce is also good with broiled or baked fish.) ON BOARD FISH DISH (4 servings)

1 cup chopped celery

1/4 to 1/2 cup cooking oil

2 to 3 pounds of any edible fish you can catch, filleted and cut into large bite-size pieces

Bread crumbs

1/4 cup onion, diced

28-ounce can tomatoes

1 1/2 teaspoons oregano

Salt, pepper, parsley to taste

1 cup red wine

1 cup ripe olives

Lightly saute' celery in oil. Shake fish pieces in a bag with bread crumbs until coated; add to celery and saute' 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 12 to 15 minutes. Serve in bowls over slices of french bread or biscuits. PLANTATION STEW (6 to 8 servings)

1/2 leg lamb (about 3 1/2 pounds)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

2 quarts stock (beef, vegetable, etc.)

6 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and diced

6 medium onions, peeled and chopped

2 red pepper pods

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons thyme

3 tablespoons vinegar

2 thin slices lemon

2 thin slices orange

6 green olives, without pits

1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce

4 bay leaves

2 sprigs parsley

2 teaspoons sage

1 tablespoon sherry

Cut lamb into cubes, salt and pepper well. In a heavy skillet, brown lamb cubes in olive oil. Have stock boiling in stew pot on top of stove. Add lamb and scrapings from frying pan to boiling broth. Add the remaining ingredients except the sherry. Cover, lower heat and let simmer 3 hours. (Add stock if necessary.) When done, pour into a tureen and stir in 1 tablespoon sherry. Correct seasoning and serve hot. MEDITERRANEAN SUMMMER SOUP (10 servings)

1 cup onions, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

5 cups chicken stock

5 cups water

1/4 cup raw rice (short grain, if possible)

6 parsley sprigs plus extra for garnish

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon thyme

4 fennel seeds

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch saffron (optional)

Saute' onions lightly in olive oil, add tomatoes and garlic and cook briefly, stirring. Transfer to soup pot, add chicken stock, water, rice and parsley. Add bay leaf, thyme and fennel seed tied in cheesecloth or in metal tea ball. Add sugar, salt, pepper and saffron. Bring to a boil, then simmer at least 30 minutes. Garnish with minced parsley. Good hot or cold. NEUSE RIVER TARRAGON BAKED HAM (10 servings)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry tarragon

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

6 to 8 pounds smoked ham

Make a marinade by combining sugar, tarragon, mustard, cloves and vinegar. Place ham, fat side down, in a well-greased baking dish. Pour marinade over ham, cover and refrigerate overnight. (Baste occasionally.) Next day, turn ham over (fat side up), spoon marinade over ham, cover loosely with foil and bake at 300 degrees, 20 minutes per pound, until fork tender.

Note: To cook an entire ham (enough for 20 servings at a cocktail supper) simply double ingredients, and marinate ham 2 days. Then bake as usual. HAM BALLS (Makes 2 quarts)

1 1/2 pounds ham, cooked and ground

1/2 pound bulk sausage

2 cups soft bread crumbs

1 cup milk

FOR THE MUSTARD SAUCE:

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup vinegar

Mix ham, sausage, bread crumbs and milk together and form walnut-size balls.

To make sauce, mix sugar, mustard, water and vinegar together. Place ham balls in shallow baking pan, cover with mustard sauce and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. CARROTS A' L'ORANGE (4 servings)

6 cups carrots, shredded

2 cups scallions, finely sliced

1 cup chicken broth (approximately)

4 tablespoons butter

3/4 teaspoon fennel

3 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Parsley, chopped, for garnish

Place shredded carrots and sliced scallions in saucepan and barely cover with chicken broth. Cook over very low heat until liquid is reduced to nothing. Stir occasionally. Add butter, fennel, mix well and heat thoroughly. (Raise heat a bit if necessary.) Just before serving, stir in Grand Marnier. Place in serving dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley. SOUR CREAM MUFFINS (Makes 18 muffins)

1/2 cup salad oil

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

2 eggs

1 cup wheat germ

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon soda

1 cup sour cream

1 cup chopped nuts

1 cup chopped dates or raisins

Mix together oil and brown sugar. Add eggs and beat thoroughly. Add wheat germ. Stir together the flour, baking powder and soda. Add flour mixture and sour cream alternately to oil/sugar/egg mixture. Mix well. Add nuts and dates or raisins, mix thoroughly. Put baking cups in muffin tins. Fill half-full, and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.

Note: Yogurt or buttermilk may be substituted for sour cream in this recipe. (Less fattening.) BETTY MEREDITH'S BUTTERMILK BISCUITS (Makes about 2 dozen biscuits)

2 cups self-rising flour

1/2 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

7 tablespoons shortening

2/3 cup buttermilk

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut in shortening. Add buttermilk and mix. Pat dough out on floured board, and cut with biscuit cutter. Bake in 450-degree oven 10 to 12 minutes. RABBIT RUN COOKIES (Makes 4 dozen chewy cookies)

1 cup sugar plus extra for dipping

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup dark molasses

2 eggs

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

4 dozen pecan halves

Cream sugar and butter. Add molasses and eggs. Mix well. Sift together all dry ingredients except pecans and add to butter mixture. Refrigerate at least 1 hour. Form in 1-inch balls and dip in sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet. Top with pecan halves. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.