ELLEN MADE potato pancakes, Lee simmered black-eyed peas. Steve baked corn bread, and instructor Melly Reuling concocted a German chocolate cake. But the banquet's main course and table

centerpiece was Eric's huge falafel casserole.

If the National Outdoor Leadership School did not require its students to pack all uneaten food out of the wilderness, the casserole might still be there at Big Hidden Lake.

It had the texture of a Fiberpile jacket and the taste of a second-hand sock. Lee took one nibble from his bowl and pushed it away with his foot. The others politely choked down a few mouthfuls. Only instructor Jim Roepke spooned it up eagerly, whether to spare the feelings of the cook or out of true enthusiasm for the cooking, no one will ever be sure.

"This is pretty good, Eric," he said.

"Thanks, Jim."

In the hands of an skilled cook falafel adds new luster to the garbanzo bean. Reuling, the course leader, served up a few falafel burgers that were lightly browned and deliciously crisp. In lesser hands, falafel is a fearsome thing--"feel awful" some call it--and one reason why the first NOLS banquets are never quite the evening of food and fellowship they promise to be.

By the end of the course, at least the food should be good if the fellowship isn't, for learning to cook in the wilderness is a fundamental part of the NOLS curriculum. From the first day students are responsible for their own meals. They cook in groups of three or four on white gasoline stoves. They have only their ingenuity, tips from in- structors and a 64-page NOLS cookbook to guide them through a a larder stocked with soybeans, corn meal, noodles, hash browns, rice, cheese, vegetable bases, dried fruit, tortillas, flour, powdered eggs, milk, yeast, an extensive spice kit, sheets of dried seaweed and a bag of miso.

The school generally eschews the foil-wrapped freeze-dried entrees. Figured at two pounds of food per person per day--50 percent of it carbohydrates--the menu provides 3,750 calories a day. Even so waist lines slim down. Deprivation intensifies the value of food in the wilderness, and sometimes explodes good sense. A NOLS student once had to be taken out early after she ate a peck of dried apples and drank a quart of water.

IN ADDITION TO the food they carry in, students learn how to supplement their diet with the bounty of the wilderness: making salads from edible plants like snow lilies, which are high in Vitamin C, and catching fish.

In the early days of NOLS, students were required to hike without any food on "small group expeditions" of four to six days at the end of the month. They would fast or eat what they could forage from the land. As the school's focus has softened with the times--the emphasis now is on learning to be comfortable in the outdoors--fasting is optional.

Given the general level of culinary skill in evidence at the banquet, fasting would have been the preferable course. Fortunately Fred had caught four rainbow trout.

He had fished that afternoon at the mouth of Big Hidden Lake, one of three lakes dammed into a narrow mountain-compressed valley by logjams. At the mouth the lake, the feeding trout let themselves drift backward in the glassy stream only to dart back with a wiggle, their shadows flitting along the gravel bed. The sky was smudged here and there with cloud. Hummingbirds dived for insects like strafing planes, and water ouzels curtsied on the banks. Cloaked in snow, Rampart Ridge rose over the lake.

He had never killed a fish, and didn't know to put his finger in the mouth and snap the back. Jim Roepke instructed him in the art. Apologizing to the trout, Fred tried to execute it, but tried too gently.

"You're supposed to break its neck, Fred, not make love to it," Roepke said, and then demonstrated the difference.

"You're a born killer, Jim," Fred said.

By the banquet's end, the sun had squeezed through the evening overcast, throwing long shadows across the camp, and turning the moss on the lodgepole branches silver. There was falafel casserole aplenty left. Eric heated it up in the morning, threw in some eggs and started the new day in style.