Gladys King sat in a green polka-dot dress outside the church-operated dining hall at the Montgomery County Fair, picking the silk from ears of corn, slicing off bad spots, then stacking the corn into green tubs.

The aroma of fried chicken wafting out the kitchen screen door reminded her that dinner time was coming on fast.

"I started out cooking at this fair," said King, 72, a member of the Wesley Grove United Methodist Church, which was preparing meals for the expected dinner crowd at the dining hall. "And I guess I'll end up cooking at it." She snapped off the end of another ear and tossed it aside.

The fair ends tonight.

King, who cooked lunch in 1949 for men constructing buildings on the fairgrounds, is a part of a long tradition of Montgomery County church members who have volunteered to serve food each summer since the fair opened 39 years ago, when the whitewashed booths still had dirt floors. "It was more like a picnic then," King said.

Almost four decades later, seven churches from several denominations operate the six food booths and one dining hall at the fair. Some have more than 100 volunteers each who put aside their street clothes for neat starched white aprons and bakers' hats.

They provide everything from full meals, including fresh corn on the cob, to take-out hot dogs and fries to cherry pie a la mode.

During the week of the fair, they may gross more than $40,000 from their sales, of which about 48 percent will be profit for the church.

But the profits earned are only part of the picture. Although some members start work at 4 in the morning and may work until midnight during the week of the fair, they say the money is less important than the fellowship and friendships that develop while they work side by side pushing hot dogs, wrapping barbecue sandwiches and spooning mashed potatoes onto plates.

"The fellowship is so important," said Richard Froelich, a chemical engineer who rearranged his schedule to help with the booth operated by the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg. "These are people you only see on Sunday at church, and now all of the sudden you're rubbing elbows with them and stepping on their feet," said Froelich in his chef's hat, admiring the rounds of beef and pork roasting in the oven.

"We're socializing, but working like dogs. Some of these by the end of the week are going to be ready for the rest home," said Julia Warfield, also a member of Wesley Grove, who sat beside King cleaning corn. "We sit, peel and gossip. You can learn a lot more here than you can in an hour on the phone."

Operation of the food concessions is not reserved for women's circles in the churches. For many churches at the fair, it is a job for the entire congregation. Expertise is needed at all levels from running orders to heating ovens and making sure all are properly uniformed.

"Danny, put a hat on. It's going to mess your hair up, but who cares?" yelled Vanda Petruccelli, a cochairman of the committee running the food booth for St. Martin's Catholic Community in Gaithersburg.

The Montgomery County Agricultural Center Inc., which runs the fair, selects from the applications each year the churches authorized to run booths.

Selections are made on a rotating basis to ensure that no one church runs a booth more than one year in a row, said Hazel Staley, secretary-manager of the fair board.

However, some of the more experienced churches have on occasion stepped in to take over a booth from a new church that found it had taken on more than it could handle: organizing shifts of workers and crews, cooking food, making sure there is enough food, keeping up with health department inspections and pleasing the public, "because the public doesn't like to stand there and wait," said Staley.

The fair board controls the quality of food sold by requiring that all booths purchase from the same commercial distributor. The fair association provides light, gas, utensils and water, all essentials needed to run the booths.

The churches must provide the manpower, "which ain't easy," Staley said. Prices are also set by the fair board to ensure consistency. Seventeen percent of whatever each church grosses goes to the fair association to help cover costs. The church running the dining hall, which is more difficult to organize, must give back 15 percent of the profits.

But even the best of booths and the most organized crews run into trials and tribulations. "We once sent a steak and cheese sandwich out without the steak. We sent a hot dog bun out without the hot dog," said Ellen Bolton, a cochairman of the Ascension committee running booth No. 3.

Marcia Kurtz, also cochairman of the Ascension food booth, said, "The Lord has a lot to do with what goes on in this fair booth. Sometimes the surprises are what make it the most fun."

In the nearby exhibit area, other county churches dealt with more serious subjects, passing out literature and encouraging passers-by to step inside their tents to learn about their religions.

"We're here to give a cup of cold water in the name of the Lord," said Bob Gray Jr., a member of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, as he worked from a red and white tent that held signs with biblical Scriptures. "This is what the Bible said, 'I was thirsty and you gave me drink.' "

Around the corner, members of a Baha'i Faith community in Montgomery explained their doctrine and passed out balloons promoting world peace.

"Bahaullah {which means Glory to God in Arabic} said tell people about the faith the way you would give a gift to a kid," said Asenath Weaver, a Baha'i member.

"All we can do is tell you about the faith, we cannot coerce you," said Fulton Caldwell, another Baha'i member.

A few yards down the path, Covenant Life, a nondenominational church in Olney, invited fair-goers to take a quiz.

"Are you going to Heaven? Two-question test reveals the answer," said a sign hanging outside the tent.

Those who take the test, whatever their answers, are likely to find themselves in earnest conversation with fundamentalist Christians bent on making converts.