Until recently, dining at a fund-raiser meant grappling with rubbery chicken or leathery roast beef, and listening to interminable toasts until a much-heralded speaker arose and proceeded to lull to sleep many a dinner guest. All this to support a noble cause.

No wonder that executives, accustomed to underwriting these deadly events, often quipped they'd prefer to pay $5,000 for a "nondinner" -- staying home. Then along came the gourmet gala, and fund-raising events became a showcase for food and an attraction to celebrities, who appeared in droves.

Tuesday evening, more than 800 people are expected to attend the March of Dimes' Gourmet Gala, titled "A Taste of the Silver Screen," at the Sheraton Washington. It's the 155th gala the March of Dimes has staged around the country in the last decade.

Guests will sample dishes such as Japanese crab cakes on rice crackers, clam dip and oyster soup, prepared by 15 two-man celebrity chef teams, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and journalist Nancy Dickerson, actress Ava Gabor and television host Merv Griffin and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and his wife, Dorothy. While Washington party-goers are nibbling, professional chefs Jacques Pepin, John Valanos and Jean-Louis Palladin, as well as Pepin's wife, Gloria, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)will judge the dishes prepared for them by the celebrities.

At the champagne reception, guests will mingle with the celebrities and admire the cooking stations designed by local members of the American Society of Interior Decorators. They will sit down to a meal based on the celebrity chefs' recipes. Flower arrangements for each table will be created -- and donated -- by local floral designers.

Although many of the guests and celebrity chefs go more for the fun than the food, the culinary world takes these gourmet galas seriously. The Culinary Institute of America offers an American Regional Award for the best regional recipe at each gala.

*The gourmet gala was born during a luncheon brainstorming session in New York City in 1976. "We were eager to do a new kind of glamor event in New York," said Elaine Whitelaw, special assistant to the president of the national March of Dimes campaign.

"In those days people were into jogging, tennis and food. With people traveling abroad and trying new dishes, food was becoming a focal point of entertainment."

Whitelaw and Nancy White, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, met over lunch with Craig Claiborne, the late James Beard, Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin, among others. They came up with the idea of celebrities' judging amateur cooks. Then White remembered that the Waldorf-Astoria had accommodated all the stoves for the Pillsbury Bake-off, so the cooks and ovens were brought together there for the first gourmet gala. As the idea caught on, all over the country, star chefs volunteered for the fund-raisers.

Each gourmet gala takes on the character of the city in which it is staged. In Washington, the galas tend to emphasizethe celebrities more than the food. In other cities, such as Providence, R.I., which had its first gala this year, the food reflected that city's ethnic culinary heritage. One celebrity chef was New York lawyer Thomas Puccio, who had spent a lot of time in Providence defending his famous client, Claus von Bu low.

"It's the best community mix at a glamorous event that I know of," said Whitelaw of the now-copyrighted fund-raiser.

Not every event for a good cause can be as lighthearted as the gourmet gala, but its emphasis on food has fortunately put the rubber chickens on the back burner. THOMAS PUCCIO'S SEAFOOD POSILLIPO Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 clove fresh chopped garlic

10 fresh cherrystone clams, chopped, juice saved

14- to 6-ounce lobster tail, cut in chunks

6 shrimp

2 ounces all-leg crab meat

Dash of red pepper

Pinch of oregano

Dash of black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped

1/4 cup water

Saute' the garlic in the olive oil until golden brown. Add oregano, red pepper, black pepper, parsley, chopped clams, crab meat, shrimp and lobster, as well as the clam juice reserved from the fresh clams. Add water and simmer covered until seafood is opaque. May be served over pasta.