For a Marine sitting on a rock under the sparse shade of a camouflage net in the Saudi Arabian desert, dinner is a plastic package of dehydrated pork patties and peach bars -- their Styrofoam consistency made all the more crumbly by two years of storage in the bowels of a supply ship.

For a paratrooper from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, supper is a heaping plate of mushy rice topped by a boiled wiener and watery scrambled eggs.

And for the newly arrived troops unloading their tanks and equipment at the docks, lunch is a Saudi sandwich of unrecognizable chopped meat -- immediately dubbed "camelburger" by dubious soldiers.

In the American tents, base camps and guard posts of Saudi Arabia, nothing is discussed in more intimate detail or more constantly than food. Or more precisely, lack of tasty food. These troops have perfected the centuries-old military tradition of griping about their gastronomic fare.

"There's lots of rice -- always rice," grumbled Sgt. Lisa Weis, 26, a Pennsylvania native whose Air Force unit is being served by local cooks provided by the Saudi government. "The meat is sometimes unidentifiable. I just eat the vegetables."

When some military officials asked the news media to tell folks back home that they shouldn't send chocolate chip cookies to the troops because the searing Saudi heat would melt the chips, soldiers nearly rioted.

"No way! Ignore that!" shouted a cluster of angry airmen. "Send them -- we don't care if they're melted crumbs."

And nothing can make a soldier more homesick than the mere mention of a Big Mac or pizza or -- beer. The closest thing to legal alcohol in the kingdom is Saudi champagne: one part Perrier to one part apple juice, spiked with slices of fresh apples and oranges. And only the U.S. troops privileged enough to bunk in hotels have the chance to try even that drink.

In the early days of Operation Desert Shield, the Saudis tried to bring a touch of hometown fast food to the troops. They delivered boxes of burgers and fries to the new arrivals. The burgers were lukewarm and the fries were limp, but it was a valiant effort.

Now the American military machine has begun cranking out its own mess halls with its own military-issue meals. In the tent city that sprawls along one busy airfield, the chef posted the promising menu of shrimp jambalaya.

"I'd pass if I were you," a frequent patron of the mess tent whispered to a newcomer.

Despite the complaints over the quality of the fare, feeding the 200,000 U.S. troops dispatched to the Arabian peninsula, Persian Gulf and Red Sea is one of the most taxing logistical efforts of the military operation.

The pantry for the 5,000-man crew of just one aircraft carrier, the USS Kennedy, included 2 million eggs, 200 tons of hamburger meat, 150 tons of french fries, 125 tons of chicken and 185,000 pounds of hot dogs.

But some military cooks have used ingenuity to overcome the blandness of institutional fare. The first weeks of the operation found Sgt. Tony "Rambo" Gulla arriving at 2 a.m. each morning at his mobile field kitchen on the edge of a bustling flight line.

While F-15 fighter planes roared overhead with afterburners spitting blue-white flames, Gulla (trained as a military heavy equipment operator) and his team of British contract cooks began scrambling 90 dozen eggs. Between 5 and 8 a.m. -- with the temperatures already crawling up to 105 degrees, 380 pilots, airplane mechanics, missile technicians and others would tramp through the tiny metal kitchen for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," paper plates piled high with eggs, grits, pancakes and -- a rarity in porkless Saudi Arabia -- bacon.

For dinner, Gulla varies his menu: One day it's beef stew, the next it's shrimp creole and corn bread. Most of the ingredients come from a can, with the contents embellished by Gulla and cooks.

Eventually Gulla's trailer was replaced with a tent-covered field kitchen capable of feeding 1,000 people per meal: The price of success.

"In peacetime one of the first things they cut out are the cooks and the bakers," lamented Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, chief of Marine Corps forces in the Middle East. "What this operation points to is ... how damn critical they are."

The bane of desert existence, however, are the prepackaged Meals Ready to Eat -- MREs in militaryspeak -- which are served to troops in the field. The modern-day replacement for the C-ration packs more than 2,500 calories into little mud-brown plastic packages. The menus are varied: franks with bean component, chicken a la king, sausage patty, barbecued meatballs. And they come with side servings of crackers or applesauce or hardened brownie blobs.

Troops note that one advantage of the blistering desert environment is that they're always guaranteed a hot meal. No need to boil those MRE packets -- just lay them on the sand for about 10 minutes, rip open and eat. After a few days, however, it's difficult for the taste buds to distinguish between the chicken a la king and the ham and scalloped potatoes.

There is some relief, however. Just a few months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the military had created new improved menus. Many of the packages now include miniature bottles of hot sauce to make the foods more palatable. And if a soldier still can't stomach the entree, some packages contain surprise goodies such as M&M candies or caramels.

But just as the military began reducing its orders of MREs because of cutbacks in overseas deployments and troops reductions worldwide, Operation Desert Shield has forced the Pentagon to increase its orders. Already military units in the region have ordered 30 million MREs. The Pentagon recently awarded two new contracts for the packaged meals at a cost of $52 million.

The most popular food stocks in Saudi Arabia are in the U.S. military commissaries. The tiny base exchange which has long been established in Dhahran for the U.S. military liaison teams in the kingdom, was quickly overrun by flocks of troops scooping up potato chips, granola bars and candy. Thousands of cans of sodas disappeared in the first few weeks of the operation.

And local Saudi Arabian companies wasted no time in trying to cash in on the crisis. One firm bought a front page advertisement in the English daily "Arab News" recently to offer its mobile field kitchens to the foreign troops rushing to the region. Beneath a photograph of a shiny contraption set against a sand dune background, Sager International Co. declared its mobile pans and ovens could cook up to 400 meals at a time.

"Demonstration can be immedeiately {sic} arranged," declared the hastily drafted advertisement.

SAUDI CHAMPAGNE (2 11-ounce servings)

In the desert, this is a hot-weather drink. Here, in cold weather, it is just as refreshing unchilled.

11-ounce can of Perrier (or other sparkling water), chilled

11 ounces of unsweetened apple juice, chilled

Wedges of apples, oranges, limes

Pour the sparkling water and apple juice into a pitcher at the same time to mix well. Serve, adding fruit wedges as desired.

Per serving: 72 calories, .2 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 mg sodium.