EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- For Marine Lance Cpl. Derrick Bates, Operation Desert Shield is largely about rice.

And potatoes.

And spaghetti -- especially spaghetti.

"Have you ever tried to cook 10 pounds at once?" asked Bates, a 22-year-old Detroit native, as he stood outside his work station on a recent afternoon.

"You overcook it and you've got one big ball that doesn't do anybody any good," he said.

As a starch cook for 1st Division Marines in the Saudi Arabian desert, Bates works in a tent city that pumps out no fewer than 34,000 hot meals a day -- breakfast and dinner for about 17,000 Marines.

Those numbers make it the largest field cooking unit in Operation Desert Shield, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Wendell Brown, operation supervisor.

Yet it is physically compact, an almost invisible blemish on the pale face of the endless Saudi desert.

All the cutting, heating, stirring and ladling happen in eight wood huts, or galleys, each the size of the first floor of a modest bungalow.

There are two galleys for meat and two for starch, two for vegetables and two for foodstuffs that don't require cooking.

The six galleys in which food is cooked are each stocked with about 20 tall, 300-pound gas ranges, They're basically good for two kinds of cooking -- boiling and steaming. The Marines do a lot of boiling and steaming.

Breakfast always includes scrambled eggs, usually a mixture of powdered and fresh. Dinner is most often a stew, or some kind of dish deftly combining noodles or rice with a canned meat. About 90 percent of the meat Marines eat is canned.

The vegetables are a combination of canned, frozen and even some fresh produce from the Saudis. The troops no longer get lettuce in their salads, however, because Marine inspectors discovered the leafy greens donated by the Saudis were grown in night soil, or human compost, Brown said.

The breakfast crew works overnight so that the food gets eaten within three hours of when it is made. The dinner crew, to which Bates belongs, works through the day.

While the breakfast menu almost never varies from eggs and potatoes, there are 14 different dinners, mostly permutations of beef, chicken, noodles and rice.

The most popular: chili macaroni and chicken with rice. The least: tuna noodle casserole.

The vats that leave the chow hall filledwith corn almost always come back empty. The ones with peas or carrots seldom do.

The food isn't Mom's cooking, but it's better than lunch: an air-tight foil envelope containing pre-prepared entrees at a temperature somewhere between lukewarm and lukecold. It's called a meal-ready-to-eat.

There are special meals for special occasions, and special ways to prepare them. If pressed, chow hall cooks can rig up a griddle for frying. They can also grill.

None of the food requires expert preparation. But the chow hall deals with so much that constant vigilance is necessary to make sure nothing spoils or gets overcooked or understirred.

"If you were cooking for just 1,000, it would be easy," said Brown. "But we're cooking for a big group."

It's not the most glamorous of military roles, but it's one that guarantees a certain degree of popularity.

"Chow is one of the things people in the field really look forward to," he said. "That's what keeps a lot of these guys going -- chow and mail. And that's pretty much it."