BUCHAREST -- In the best of times, this Romanian capital is a drab and joyless place. And winter, when the city is wrapped in coal smog and its streets slick with blackening snow, is the worst of times.

Winter, for the Romanians in the past 10 years, has meant privation as their creaking Stalinist economy has slowed. Most of the 23 million people have too little fuel to heat their homes against the Balkan cold. Shortages of food add to other daily discomforts.

This winter, by all accounts, has been worse than ever. A drought and heat wave last summer brought disaster to the nation's already inadequate agriculture. Vegetables and fruit were only sporadically available, grain supplies sparse and even potatoes so stunted that they were referred to as "doves' eggs."

With the nation striving to eradicate its foreign debts in the next five years -- to underline its independence, even of the International Monetary Fund -- meat was exported to earn hard currency. Housewives bought at market what cannot be sold abroad.

Romanians tell of the school child asked by his teacher to draw a pig. The child draws a head and four pigs' feet and nothing in between. When the teacher prompts the child to fill in the rest of the anmial, the youngster looks up and says, "Oh, you want me to draw an export pig."

Westerners resident here say that until the recent national conference of the ruling Communist Party, called to assess strategy, the markets had so little food that, paradoxically, there were few food lines. There was not enough to stand in line for.

ALL THAT changed in mid-December. With the government of President Nicolae Ceausescu still shaken by antigovernment riots last month in the Transylvanian city of Brasov, the party went all out to make sure public outrage did not mar the meeting of party elite.

Entry into the capital was rigidly controlled. Passengers arriving at Bucharest's unheated airport were frisked and their baggage double searched. Police and the national militia were mobilized, patrolling in greater numbers and lining boulevards that party notables would travel.

To ease the population's ire about the shortages, food suddenly appeared in the shops -- tomatoes, leeks, some apples, potatoes, chunks of beef, sausages, and lardy bacon. Overnight, food lines sprang up.

"I never thought I would see the day when seeing a food line was taken as a sign of economic improvement," said a western resident. "There are even reports of people fighting for places."

Ceausescu, 69, a former cobbler who has strictly controlled Romania for 22 years, showed once again that, for all of his continuing praise of "scientific socialism," he had not lost his politician's grasp for bread-and-butter issues.

The president received his greatest applause of the conference on the closing day. After a long dissertation on the world economic crisis, which seemed to excuse Romania of its own failings, he promised his 265-member Central Committee that next year there would be, yes, a chicken in every pot.

To be exact, Ceausescu said that in 1988, 300,000 more cattle would be slaughtered for home consumption, along with 12.5 million pigs. And each person would be entitled to 35 pounds of chicken per year.

This time the applause did not begin on the front benches, but in the rear -- where the provincial officials closest to the people were sitting.

"What Ceausescu showed was that at least he was not totally out of touch with the people's anger," said a foreign analyst. "Everyone thought he was isolated and did not understand how much the Romanian people were hurting from his policies."

WHETHER Ceausescu would make good his promise was another matter. No one doubted that more food could be made available in this onetime breadbasket of the Balkans. But he would have to moderate the austerity. The adherent of Stalinist policies is not thought likely to reverse his view.

"What he has given the people this month is a sop, a palliative, to get by the current unrest," noted another foreign analyst. "Now that his police are once more in place, his informers back in the factories, and the party conference out of the way, I fear we will see the food lines wither again for lack of food."