Ridgewell's, principal caterer to Washington's elite, found a new customer yesterday. About 4 p.m., one of the firm's distinctive purple trucks, laden with crab sandwiches, French pastries and several types of quiche, pulled up to the office of the Community for Creative Non-Violence at 1345 Euclid St. NW.

As volunteers looked on in disbelief, gourmet food that had been prepared with lavish care for the mouths of official Washington was unloaded and handed over to the city's main organization for the homeless. With no inaugural parade, and temperatures barely above zero, dozens of parties had been canceled. The result was an unexpected cornucopia for those living on grates and in city shelters.

"We have limousines driving up here with donations," said Mitch Snyder, CCNV's director, as he contemplated whether or not freezing, homeless people would eat sushi, Westphalian ham or Italian sausage. "Sure, they'll eat it, it's food," he said. "I think it's wonderful, but I'd love to see it become a regular event."

Most of the gourmet food was sent by American Security Bank, after fewer than 700 people turned up for its traditional inaugural bash where 1,500 had been expected. Dozens of other organizations also donated equally substantial -- if slightly more prosaic -- meals.

D.C. police distributed 1,000 box lunches, containing roast beef and ham sandwiches, apples and candy, to 10 city shelters. They had been prepared for officers assigned to the inaugural parade. J. C. Penney Co. sent about 1,000 box lunches to CCNV, and Pepsico Inc., which had promised to feed 1,000 marching Boy Scouts, also chipped in.

On Sunday, hours after the National Pageant of Young Americans at the Jefferson Memorial was canceled because of the bitter cold, inaugural coordinators delivered box lunches to the city's Department of Human Services.

The food could not have come at a more appropriate time. With record cold sweeping the city, official shelters were filled almost to capacity, according to Dennis Bethea, director of the city's office of emergency shelter.

CCNV plans to distribute the food from Ridgewell's as best it can, but Snyder admitted it might be tough to transport the quiche, oysters and uncooked shrimp around the city. "We appreciate the thought, we really do," he said. "Incongruity is Washington's middle name. Four years ago it would have gone to trash bins."