The potential of the Maryland beaten biscuit has somehow been overlooked in the current national furor over the perils of nuclear war.

No more perfect food item could be set aside for the fallout shelter. The Maryland beaten biscuit doesn't have a shelf life, it has a half-life.

"As long as I can get 'em open, I can eat 'em," said 82-year-old Ruth Orrell, who runs Maryland's only known commercial beaten biscuit business in the shadow of the oldest white oak in the nation, the Wye Oak. "The only time I throw them away is if they mold," she said, adding that they only mold in extreme heat and humidity.

The Maryland beaten biscuit comes about as close as you're likely to get to permanence in a bread. Beaten biscuits start out hard. Left around long enough they get stone hard, and then Orrell likes to crush them up for use as a pancake base or for breading oysters or pork chops for frying.

Presumably, a survivalist who stocked his underground larder with Maryland beaten biscuits would have bread forever and no need for firearms to protect his cache.

Intruders could be repelled with a barrage of the little breads, which are a bit larger, about as heavy and just as hard as golf balls.

Beaten biscuits have a rich history, dating to the earliest settlers who presumably were taught to beat their dough by the Indians, Orrell said.

Novelist John Barth wrote in The Floating Opera: "I recommend three Maryland beaten biscuits for breakfast. They are hard as a haul-seiners' conscience and dry as a dredger's tongue, and they sit for hours in your morning stomach like ballast on a tender ship's keel.

"They cost little, are easily and crumblessly carried in your pockets, and if forgotten and gone stale are neither harder nor less palatable than when fresh."

Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), a champion of the beaten biscuit, will drive the hour and a half to the Eastern Shore just to load up on Orrell's products, which he says are "to Maryland what the crepe is to France, pasta to Italy and the matzo to Israel."

But he says the biscuit is often misunderstood. "When the gift of a beaten biscuit is exported from Maryland by air mail . . . the recipient will assume that the unique consistency is somehow the result of having become stale in the mail.

"Only when he tastes the beaten biscuit and penetrates its hard shell will he discover the fresh, rewarding treat awaiting him."

Mathias for years has been spreading the word about Orrell's Maryland beaten biscuits and inflicting them on his staff, one of whom said the gifts are particularly appreciated by "those of us with strong teeth."

Mathias also convinced the Chevy Chase Market to carry them for Washington-area aficionados.

On an average week, Orrell's staff of six women and a man, working three days a week in her sunwashed kitchen and an adjoining shed, produce about 1,000 dozen beaten biscuits, mostly for distribution in Baltimore, Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore. The morsels sell for $1.60 a dozen retail.

Orrell started the business in 1935 as a way of making "pin money," she said. Her first batch, beaten into submission with a two-pound hammer, "wasn't fit to eat," but over the years the biscuits got better and the system got smoother. The ingredients never changed: flour, country lard, water, sugar, salt, a smidgen of baking soda and plenty of elbow grease.

These days the beating is done by an electrically powered roller, which pounds great hunks of dough for 25 minutes to aerate it. The dough is hand-formed into silky smooth biscuits by one of five women working around a kitchen table, then baked in six ovens by Mary Holtzlaw, chief baker for 20 years. There are no timers.

"I got it all computered in my head," said Holtzclaw. "They're going to have to close up when I go senile."

Just how you eat a Maryland beaten biscuit is a matter of personal choice, though it is said its finest moment comes when surrounding a thin slice of air-dried, sugar-cured country ham.

It is superb with butter, great with home-made jam and just fine left to molder in the pocket, to be eaten when the spirit beckons.

But please, for the baker's sake, carry a knife.

"Don't break that biscuit!" shouted Orrell as a hungry visitor prepared to butter his third offering, fresh from the oven. "Cut it with a knife. I can't stand to see anyone break a biscuit."