Outside, the afternoon sky is the nothing color of sandbox sand, and the air -- soaring again into the death-by-asphyxiation range -- is unbreathable. From coast to coast, Americans are glued to the sad spectacle of O.J.'s fight-and-flight. But Tom Steindler doesn't care. Tom Steindler is oblivious. He's standing in the kitchen of his comfortable McLean house, his head filled with visions. He sees the future, and it's good.

It's yummy-good.

It's: smoked trout mousse ("this is really easy, you just puree a little ricotta cheese together with the trout, lemon juice, dill and scallions"); cantaloupe balls wrapped in prosciutto; ("any moron can do this"); grilled salmon on a bed of salsa with arugula ("it takes a little planning, but it's worth it"); and, for the entree, grilled marinated leg of lamb with a yogurt-mint sauce, accompanied by new potato salad and grilled eggplant ("it's summer, I figure let's have some fun."). Dessert will be fresh berries with creme anglaise. Oh yeah: les drinks. Tonight Steindler will serve Pimm's cup, made by soaking a whole slew of fresh berries, along with mint, cucumber and celery, in Pimm's. And wine -- lots of it, both red and white. And champagne.

"Life," Steindler pronounces, "is a constant battle against starvation."

Which is where I come in. My mission: to hang out with fabulous cooks -- people who aren't professionally involved with food but for whom food is a hobby, bordering on an obsession -- in order to eat well. Whoops. I mean, in order to discover what makes such people tick.

IT'S A SUMMER SUNDAY and Steindler, 39, is having a few friends in for a casual dinner, as he often does, so I've invited myself over.

His kitchen doesn't look like the province of a food maniac, exactly, though I see he does have the basic requisites: the gas stove, the food processor, the quality knives (his are German, made by the firm of Zwilling J.A. Henckels) and pots and pans (copper with stainless steel lining, made in France).

He's a tall, well-padded man with a big grin and a booming voice, and at first glance, he might seem like your typical Washington bachelor yuppie. Which is to say that he lives in a roomy house, furnished with taste and style; he drives a Lexus unsullied by the pungent odors of, for example, dirty diapers and spilled Yahoo; he has a car phone; he listens to jazz and Bonnie Raitt; he's recently taken up golf. Finally -- and this is the clincher -- he's a lawyer (at Anderson, Hibey & Blair, where he practices international trade law). He even tells me, quite forthrightly, that he loves his work.

But really, he's a bona fide foodie. Food is this man's raison d'etre, practically. He loves to eat it. He loves to cook it. He loves to buy it. His idea of a good date -- and a good guest -- is someone who has seconds.

"I'm a member of the clean plate club," he says.

Today he's still high from his recent vacation in Aspen. Hiking? Fishing? Hang gliding? Heck no, Steindler was eating. He and his sister, a Chicago-based food stylist, attended the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, where, for several days, under the brilliant blue skies and soaring craggy peaks of the American Rockies, they ate and drank and soaked up inspiration the way a sponge cake soaks up Drambuie.

He's ready to shop.

As he drives due west toward the Giant Gourmet-Someplace Special, he tells me a little something about his gastronomic background. He first started cooking at Oxford, where he was a graduate student in literature. "On my first day there," he says, "I went to the dining hall, sat down and had the worst meal of my life." The next morning, he bought Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and then, starting on page one, worked his way through it. Next stop was New York, where he lived around the corner from Dean & DeLuca. Since then, he's taken a few cooking classes, but mostly he relies on instinct, inspiration and cook- books, of which he has, for an authentic foodie, surprisingly few. Maybe 20.

As the day goes on, I will see that he's a walking, talking authority on the current food scene, on everything from the rise of the celebrity chef to why people buy scented wood chips. But for now, he can't talk. He needs to concentrate. He needs to shop.

WHEN THE GIANT GOURMET came to McLean in 1982, it transformed the way suburbanites thought about food. Or at least, that's what my mother, a longtime resident, says. I remember what she said at the time. She said: "Honey, you wouldn't believe the incredibly wonderful yummy-good things they have at this Giant."

Steindler seems to share this sentiment. What I see is a lot of people wearing alligator shirts and driving Mercedeses. What he sees is the gastronomic equivalent of the Garden of Eden. He goes into ecstasy over the deli counter; he discourses on bread in the bakery section; in the meat department, he launches into a kind of Ode to Meat, that goes something like this:

"Fresh rabbit, fresh duck/no need to order in advance/oh! today I am in luck/as scrumptious here as Paris, France."

I'm kind of making up the rhyming part, but the point is, Steindler is enthusiastic, and he seems to know every inch of the store. In fact, he says one of the reasons he chose to live in his neighborhood is its proximity to the Giant Gourmet. Because, as he puts it, "you can buy your milk and toilet paper at Safeway" -- and presumably your regular Giant -- "but not much more."

There's a moment of panic when Steindler can't seem to locate really good arugula. He begins to mutter about having to go to Fresh Fields over on Route 7. Then, just in time, smushed up against the baby yellow squash, he finds it.

Nirvana.

He buys, among other things: a leg of lamb, prosciutto, cilantro, sausage, Italian parsley and vanilla ice cream. The rest of the ingredients for tonight's dinner are already in his kitchen, in a state of near or complete completion.

PEOPLE WHO ARE really, really, really into cooking will tell you that cooking well is more, much more, than merely throwing edibles together and putting the result on a plate (my own personal approach). It's passion. It's art. It's a deeply creative act that brings people together, gives them pleasure, brings out the best in them and creates the ambiance in which the human spirit can, if only for a few hours, soar. Hence the entire country of Italy. And the explanation for why the quintessential Washington dinner party -- once a bunch of government stiffs eating overdone beef, drinking heavy red wine and talking about the Cold War -- is now a kind of performance art.

Because nowadays anyone can get his, or her, hands on radicchio. Not to mention eight or nine million kinds of infused balsamic vinegar.

Which brings us to the subject of gourmet stores. Sutton Place Gourmet, which opened its first store in 1980, and now has six stores in Washington and Baltimore, recently announced that it's planning to double that number. Sutton Place carries more than 70 kinds of oils alone. More than 400 different cheeses. Sixty vinegars. It sells all the produce with unpronounceable names, and 28 different kinds of tomatoes. And lots and lots of other really good stuff.

Then there's the Giant Gourmet, which has a slightly more down-to-earth feel to it but, like Sutton Place, plays classical background music, sells tomatoes on the vine for as much as $4 a pound, and provides the avid cook with ingredients unheard of as recently as the Reagan administration. The latest to join the fray is New York's glorious Dean & DeLuca, which set up operations, with much attendant hoopla on the part of the press, last year in Georgetown. Dean & DeLuca has a hipper, artier feel than either of the other two leading area gourmet stores, but -- at least to my nonprofessional eye -- it's doing more or less the same thing, to the tune of more or less the same Top 20 classical music hits. Namely: selling lots of really good, really fresh, really expensive food to people listening to the Brandenburg Concertos.

Here are some of the freshly made ravioli I find one day at Dean & DeLuca:

* Crab with sage blue cheese in egg ravioli;

* Black olive ravioli filled with artichoke;

* Wild mushroom and Fontina cheese in saffron ravioli;

* Veal, ricotta, Parmesan and shallots in porcini ravioli;

* Black pepper ravioli filled with butternut squash, mostrada and Parmesan;

* Pumpkin with sage and honey in spinach ravioli;

* Black beans and Monterey Jack cheese in blue corn ravioli;

* Shrimp and tequila in saffron ravioli;

* Roasted beets and onions with ricotta in spinach ravioli.

There they sit, in beautiful oranges and purples and blues and grays, ravioli in the soft muted tones of stones washed up from the sea, dusted with flour and displayed behind glass on a slab of marble, beckoning at $14.95 to $19.95 a pound.

Who is buying all this pasta and olive oil and imported cheese? Who can possibly afford it? The answer seems to be: lots of people.

Serious foodies -- professionals and lay persons alike -- will actually tell you that shopping at gourmet stores isn't, in the end, much more expensive than shopping at non-gourmet stores; and even if it sometimes is, depending on what you're buying, the results are worth it. Because, as everyone knows, you can't buy an edible tomato at a regular grocery. On the other hand, those same people, if pressed, will concede that you have to have two things to do the food thing all the way. You need:

1. Time

2. Money

Because if you don't even have time to take a shower, and you're scraping to put together this month's mortgage payment, you're simply not going to schlep into Georgetown to buy fresh swordfish at nearly $20 a pound, no matter how delish.

Which may be why, when I scrounged around for people who fit the description of serious foodsters -- the type that shop almost exclusively at gourmet stores, and spend hours and hours thinking about, planning and preparing food -- I mainly came up with people who don't have kids.

I CAME UP WITH Angela Dolce.

Dolce, 33, learned to cook at her Sicilian grandmother's side, in Astoria, Queens (which, for those unfamiliar with the neighborhood, is where Archie Bunker lived). Or perhaps "learned" is the wrong word. It's more like she absorbed a certain know-how, an instinct for food. Or, as she puts it: "I had a good Italian upbringing. I could sew, do embroidery, clean the whole house. And of course I knew how to cook. I was in training to catch a good man."

Today Dolce presides over her own kitchen at the back of a spacious Old Town Alexandria town house. When she and her husband, Charlie, a regional vice president for a mutual funds company, went house-hunting, the kitchen was the top priority. And this kitchen, though on the small side, fit the bill. Double French doors open onto a bricked-in patio and herb garden. Handsome wooden cabinets open up to reveal well-designed storage space. There are enough counters. The floors are made of wood.

Dolce, an executive secretary, would like one day to become a professional cook. She subscribes to Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Cook's Illustrated, Food and Wine, Fine Cooking, Cooking Light, Martha Stewart's Living and, for its recipes, Southern Living. She has dozens and dozens of cookbooks. Cookbooks piled on the kitchen table, and stacked on the bookshelf in the hall, and sitting here and there, upstairs and down. Everything from In the Kitchen With Rosie to Le Cordon Bleu at Home and Hugh Johnson's How to Enjoy Wine. She has copper kettles. She has a pantry full of infused oils and vinegars. She has a Kitchen Aid mixer, a food processor and an Atlas pasta machine. She spends many afternoons watching cooking shows in the basement family room. She has piles of the Chef's Catalogue. She has her grandmother's old sauce pots, as well as those made by Le Creuset, Calphalon and Berndes. Ask her about knives, and she'll give you a talk that could be a doctoral dissertation. She's done Peter Kump (the New York-based teaching chef), and dreams of someday attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She claims that her husband is waiting for the day when she'll organize the spices alphabetically. She also claims that she's never lived farther than five minutes from a Sutton Place Gourmet store.

At first blink, Dolce looks like just another of the Y-people, with their fancy cars (Dolce herself drives a very clean BMW), their interior decors right out of the pages of House Beautiful, their cases of wine and gleaming hardwood floors. But blink again and Dolce is the person-you-most-want-as-your-next-door-neighbor -- a warm and unpretentious woman, slightly on the hyper side, whose love of cooking has made many, many people very, very happy.

Now she's talking about the kitchen of the house that she and her husband are building on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "We're starting with the kitchen, and building around it. I'm so excited -- it's my fantasy come true. I'm going to have tile floors, a Sub-Zero fridge, a Viking stove, double wall ovens and a baker's counter, the real kind, the kind covered with granite." Is it only my imagination, or are her eyes actually growing misty?

She's serious when she claims she's never lived farther than five minutes away from a Sutton Place. She's what's known as a "good customer," although that description doesn't quite do her justice. Her house is a few blocks from the Alexandria branch, and as we drive there through the rain, I have the feeling that the car could steer itself. Depending on whether her husband is home, she shops there anywhere from three to six times a week. She knows everyone who works there. Indeed, she's on a first-name basis with many of them. As in: "Hi, Marty, how ya' doin'?"

"Hey. What's up? Anything special you're looking for today?"

Tonight is a light night -- Dolce is cooking only for herself, her husband and a guest. She buys a loaf of bread, some mesclun (which at Safeway is called "salad mix"), a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, clams, scallops, shrimp and fresh linguine (for linguine with seafood in a white wine herb sauce), blackberry sorbet and fresh berries (which she's planning on cooking down in a champagne sauce), Virginia tomatoes on the vine, a wedge of cheese and flowers.

"I love this place," she says. "You can get everything here, and everyone's so helpful. I even have a favorite cashier, but he's not here tonight."

She spends $74.69.

Back at the house, a package from the Chef's Catalogue is waiting just inside the door.

FOODIES, SAYS Katherine Newell Smith, vice president of communications at Sutton Place Gourmet, view cooking "as their great passion, their creative outlet."

"Ever since I got my Girl Scout cooking badge at the age of 10, I've loved it," she says. "Once, when I was in college, I made lobster thermidor for Thanksgiving dinner. It's the part of you that you share -- and food isn't just food, but both the centerpiece of an evening and the enhancement of the evening. Here in Washington, and in other large cities, we take life so seriously, and work so hard, we no longer have time to go out, or to hang out, or just to enjoy being at home. Today more and more people are using their homes to entertain."

Yeah, I'm thinking, but. Because you might say that all this attention to food -- from fretting about where you can obtain the very best olive oil for 10 or 20 bucks a bottle, to testing and retesting a recipe until it's perfect, to driving to two or three different stores to find the very best lobster -- is, well, excessive. You might also say that there's something kind of off-putting about the entire gourmet scene -- as if knowing about wine, listening to classical music while you push your cart past rows of tantalizingly beautiful, multicolored tomatoes and understanding the meaning and application of the term bain marie (cooking in a water bath, of course) is a substitute for actual culture. Of course, one might also say that anyone who makes this kind of argument is a puritanical spoilsport.

A trio of truisms:

* Almost everyone likes to eat;

* Almost everyone likes to drink;

* Almost everyone I know has been to Europe.

What I'm trying to get at is, most upwardly mobile thirty- and fortysomethings went to Europe at some point during their formative years, and they came back with their little heads filled with visions of fresh baguettes and cafe au lait. Then they went out and made tons and tons of money. Lots of them did, anyway. And the ones who didn't retained their taste for yummy- good food.

Food is one of those wonderfully slippery subjects, like money, because we all know what it is, but it's never what it seems to be. A rose may be a rose, but risotto with shellfish and sausage is not merely a delicious dish. It's a lifestyle statement. Or a creative expression. Or a gift of love. Or a symbol of the decline of the simple values that made America great.

Depending on how you look at it.

GEORGE COULBOURNE is in the Bethesda Sutton Place Gourmet, talking cheese with the man behind the counter. They talk "triple cream," "St. Andre" and "pave d'affinois," but Coulbourne finally settles on the Explorateur, which sounds, to me, like the name of a new four-wheel-drive vehicle but, duh, isn't. Then off he goes toward wine, then seafood, then the rows of pastes -- tomato, sun-dried tomato, garlic -- that come in tubes like Crest. Here he pauses to confess that he never buys garlic paste, because it's so easy to make. Finally, he alights in produce. He and the produce man quickly become embroiled in a conversation about fruits and vegetables, but it may as well be about Etruscan ruins, for all I can follow it. When they're finished, Coulbourne scoops up some mesclun, some pears and some tomatoes.

Coulbourne, 42, has been in the health field most of his professional life -- he's a registered nurse, and now works as a manager at Providence Hospital. But he's also done research and taught high school.

"I get bored quickly," he says. "But one thing I never get bored with is food. It's endlessly varied."

Coulbourne estimates that he entertains three or four times a week during the summer, and most weekends during the winter. ("What's the use of taking cooking classes if you don't go home and practice?") Today he's shopping for lunch for a group of friends. The menu, which he has printed up on his home computer, is as follows:

Tomato and roasted pepper soup

Maryland crab cakes with coulis de

tomatoes provencale

Silver Queen sweet corn custards

Broccoli rolled in lemon butter

Mesclun salad with herbed tomato sauce

vinaigrette

Pears with maple-bourbon sauce

His total bill at Sutton Place Gourmet is $91.91.

But we're not through. Because Coulbourne, unlike some die-hards, has no problem setting foot in other stores -- even regular grocery stores. So off we go to Giant, and finally to a liquor store near Coulbourne's home in Rockville, where he buys bourbon and, just for the hell of it, a bottle of mint-green Tabasco with jalapeno. (He told me over the phone earlier that he would travel as much as 45 minutes for a single ingredient, and I'm beginning to believe it.) One thing I notice is that as Coulbourne talks about food, he uses the first-person plural. "We sometimes cook all night." "We go on eating vacations." That sort of thing. Who, I wonder, is "we"?

It turns out that "we" is Coulbourne's roommate, Larry Stafford, as well as a group of six or seven friends, many of them hailing from Coulbourne's home town, Crisfield, Md. The little town plays a major role in both Coulbourne's personal and gastronomic life. It was there that, as a child, he enjoyed the huge, formal meals that his mother and grandmother cooked nightly, and the big Sunday night dinners with two meats, three or four vegetables, homemade breads and pies, the corn on the cob and cole slaw and Maryland crab soups. It was there too that he befriended two of today's foursome -- Libby Dize and Lloyd Laird.

They're waiting for him when we get back from shopping. And they really do help cook. While Coulbourne issues orders, they chop and stir and wipe off the counters.

"He's such a tyrant."

"We're his sous chefs."

"When are you going to let us drink, for God's sake?"

Coulbourne's kitchen -- a galley-style kitchen in a suburban split-level, circa 1960 -- is equipped with a gas range, a Kitchen Aid mixer, a Pasta Express machine, a Cuisinart and, outside, a CharBroil Executive Chef Masterflame grill. The tools of the trade. But what strikes me is the incredible care with which the kitchen -- and the entire house, inside and out -- has been outfitted. Every plate, every glass, every jar of herbs has been chosen and arranged with an astonishing attention to detail and presentation. I've never really seen anything like it. But it makes sense. Foodies are not into just food, but the whole aesthetic. Taste, smell, appearance. They might not be rolling around in piles and piles of money, but they spend their money -- or at least a good part of it -- on making their fantasy homes come true.

I can't help but notice that Coulbourne has a serious collection of cookbooks. Among them are: Lee Bailey's Tomatoes, Capitol Classics, Williams-Sonoma Chicken, Snack to Your Heart's Content!, Breadman's Healthy Bread Book, Mary Emmerling's Country Cooking, Southern Living Annual Recipes (1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988), Grande Diplome Cooking Courses, Open House Cookbook, Sidney Moore's Favorite Recipes, Joy of Cooking, The 60-Minute Gourmet, The New Basics Cookbook, China Moon Cookbook, Rose's Christmas Cookies, The Silver Palate Cookbook, Pasta Presto, Williams-Sonoma Pasta, The New York Times Cook Book, Great Good Food, Year Round Turkey, and classics by Julia Child and James Beard. There are also notebooks -- several of them -- filled with recipes. Hundreds and hundreds of recipes, some written out by hand, others clipped from newspapers and magazines.

Coulbourne has taken cooking courses, lots of them, and it shows. Because what he's doing can't be done just by following the instructions in a cookbook. What he's doing shows training, and dedication, and skill and a willingness to be yelled at again and again while standing over a hot stove.

It's 1:30 p.m. and Coulbourne's buddies are chopping.

It's 2 and he's putting roasted red peppers through a food mill.

It's 2:30 and he's deglazing.

2:35: He's snipping a little more of this, a little more of that, from his herb garden.

3:00: He's pouring a concoction made of fresh corn and cream into little white custard dishes.

3:30: He's deep-frying.

3:45. 3:50. 3:55.

"We're getting there," he says.

I'm drooling.

"Just 30 more seconds . . . Ahhh!"

We sit down at 4 p.m.

Ah, yes. The food. As in: "I've died and gone to heaven." Or: "Pinch me, I must be dreaming."

OKAY. I ADMIT IT. The whole deal does strike me as being a tad too much. On the other hand, to be really good at something, you have to go overboard. And while cooking at this level of excellence requires conspicuous consumption, the whole process -- from soup to nuts, as it were -- is not essentially about acquisitiveness, but rather about creative pleasure, and the joys of sharing a good meal with friends.

And I, for one, appreciate a good meal.

My telephone number's in the book.

Jennifer Moses is a Washington writer whose work appears frequently in The Post.

Sees life as "a constant battle against starvation."

Won't live more than five minutes from a Sutton Place Gourmet, hopes to study at Le Cordon Bleu someday.

Entertains three or four times a week in the summer, most weekends during the winter.